The problem with football, you see, is that it isn’t real.

It’s real enough when we play – the angry marks left down our calves by a lumbering IT technician’s studs on a Sunday morning are real. The burning stitch after 15 minutes of wheezing up and down the five-a-side pitch is real.

A bit too real, maybe.

Which is why most of us end up watching on TV or from the stands or terraces and cheering on other people playing football – and doesn’t supporting a team sound a little sad when you describe it like that – rather than doing it ourselves.

And watching, supporting, are definitely not real.

Roberto Firmino scuttles into the area. Nicolás Otamendi steps across and performs an exquisitely timed Maldini-esque tackle. On himself. Firmino, now free in front of goal, prods a shot towards Ederson with the tenderness of a father playing with his toddler son. Getting into the spirit of things, Ederson gently bats the ball back to Firmino. Spoilsport Aymeric Laporte then almost gets in the way, attempting a clearance – attempting something, anyway – with all the grace of a man fighting off a swarm of bees, before generously retreating to the wings. The ball bobbles back to Firmino, who rolls it to Salah, who, in a remake of the inattentional blindness gorilla experiment, has somehow made everyone not notice he is there. Salah smashes it gleefully past a penitent Kompany on the line. Everyone goes bananas.

How much of that is real?

Putting aside the clumsily chiselled-in metaphors and gags, of course – which definitely aren’t real.

Start with time. Time is elastic in football. Unlike our lives, which feel as though they are mostly lived in the present, football often seems to exist almost entirely in the past and the future. The split second that it takes for Salah to thwack the ball into the City goal is just that – a split second.

But the time that surrounds the goal, in which it can be said to exist in one form or another, is vast. Possibly infinite, in fact, given that someone, somewhere might be thinking about it – reimagining it, remembering it – until the end of time. The goal – like any goal – might live forever.

In someone’s mind.

In someone’s imagination.

The goal existed before it happened, too, if only for a fraction of a second, in the imaginations of however many millions were watching around the world – or at least those who were paying enough attention to think give it to Salah. Firmino or even Jürgen Klopp might also have envisaged it for just a tiny sliver of time before it actually took place. Nicolás Otamendi might have seen it coming too, much like the man who stares up at the No 92 bus sees it coming just before it runs over his foot. A feeling, you get the impression, to which Nicolás Otamendi is no stranger.

Or the goal might have lived before even that – in the imaginations of Liverpool fans supping pints in the pubs around Anfield leading up to the match, or in the minds of those same fans on their way to work on the days prior to the game. It might have lurked in the heads of City fans ever since they’d heard the draw and nervously pictured Salah capering gleefully in front of a tumultuous Kop, Nicolás Otamendi on his knees in supplication before him. Asking himself, as Nicolás Otamendi must often do, the big questions.

Why are we here?

What does it all really mean?

What is real and what is not real in football for Nicolás Otamendi, by the way, is another story. Possibly a book.

As fans, spectators, viewers our experience of the goal itself is fleeting. The momentary excitement it causes is ephemeral. It is only truly real for us for a few seconds – those moments when we jump up and down, unleash a primal yawp, hug a stranger, possibly fall over. And then it is gone. And we are thinking of something else. Things connected to the goal, certainly, but not the actual goal itself.

Liverpool fans, for example, might already be imagining the next goal they will score – given that only 12 minutes have passed and City are looking jittery. And that with Silva and De Bruyne and Sané and all that, and it being a two-legged tie, one goal might not be enough.

Come on Reds, we can get another here.

City fans might also be thinking of the future. It’s early days. If we just calm down, take a breath, we’ll be alright. We could still score three or four. Even if we keep it to just one, we’ll win in Manchester.

Come on Pep, sort it out.

Both sets of fans are imagining the next 78 minutes. Maybe the 90 minutes at the Etihad after that. None of which have happened yet. None of which are real, so far.

Plus there’s the fact that the goal, which took a millisecond to score not very long ago, has now changed the future for everybody, creating an entirely different set of imaginings and conjecture and what ifs than were in play after 11 minutes of the game, when the score was nil-nil.

In front of their screens, meanwhile, the Twitterati have also moved on. The goal is over for them. They have a more important mission. They must have a big opinion, the kind that will attract likes and followers. That will kindle debate, perhaps. Or they must think of something witty to say. And they must do it all before anyone else. Bomb disposal units have seldom worked under such pressure.  

Once the game is over, too, we race between past and future like a demented Marty McFly. We might imagine the second leg, or even what will come after that. We might think about how things are shaping up for next season, or the season after that – if Liverpool go on to win the Champions League, or if City fight back and then win it themselves, might it be the start of a dynasty? We consider what the world might look like without Mo Salah (if he moves to Real Madrid or Barcelona, for example) or Nicolás Otamendi (if he gives up football and returns to his first love of, well, whatever it may be). We make predictions and read articles that make predictions. We might – if we are young and/or romantic enough – associate the future glories of our team with our own lives, imagining that Salah’s goals, and the trophies they will bring, will make us happier, more confident and successful and prosperous, more attractive to the sex of our desiring.

And we think of the past. Liverpool fans will watch the game again, or at least the highlights, like it is their wedding video, their holiday snaps. Remembering it. Reliving it. They will compare this win to past victories, this team to past Liverpool teams – Mo Salah to Ian Rush, for example. City fans might do the same – Nicolás Otamendi to Michel Vonk.

Vonk wins hands down, every time, by the way.

We will read articles and stories about the match, even though it is over, even though we saw it all, every minute of it. Even though it is now history.

And if we were at the match, when we watch it or think or read about it again, we might remember how we felt, what we were doing (standing, sitting, unwrapping a piece of chewing gum, wishing the big gob behind us would shut up, thinking about a pint or a fag or a wee) at key moments.

It is unlikely these memories will ever be entirely accurate.

For football, like most sports, is a game of fictions and narratives and imaginings.

Football, like most sports, exists only a little in reality and mostly in the imagination.

Football is a place where, as Georges Simenon said of his autobiographical novel Pedigree, everything is true while nothing is accurate.

Which is where things start to get really complicated.


Because, like a variation on the song City fans occasionally still sing, we’re never really there, are we? Not anymore. Some of us are, of course – 50,000 at Anfield, 53,000 at the unlovely Etihad six days later. But millions more of us watch on TV. We consume our football in our climate-controlled living rooms – or at the pub – through a two-dimensional screen, with our fingers on the volume control in case the neighbours bang on the wall.

And where the action – the narrative – is described, interpreted and explained by commentators and analysts.

Everything is true while nothing is accurate.

There’s an incredible atmosphere at Anfield tonight, someone on some TV channel must have said at some point.

Well, yes, there probably was. But what does that really mean? More or less incredible than, say, the atmosphere at the San Paolo in Naples? Or the Maracanã for a big Libertadores game? Or an Istanbul or Cairo derby? After all, we’re global football consumers now. These are our points of reference.

We will never know, because we weren’t there. But when we hear the words, we attach our own meanings. And so the lines between reality and fiction and imagination begin to blur.

We could try to recreate the atmosphere at Anfield, of course. We could turn the TV up to full blast and sit next to the speakers to get the effect of the Kop in full voice. We could leave all the windows open to welcome in the crisp/freezing spring air. We could replace our sofa with garden furniture to simulate the discomfort of stadium seating. We could invite the neighbours round to squeeze onto the garden furniture alongside and in front of us to reduce our leg room. We could ask the neighbours not to wash or we could avoid flushing the toilet for a few days or we could grill some sausages to reproduce the unpleasant aromas of large public gatherings and mass catering.

But it probably wouldn’t be exactly the same.

Same again, sir? How can you have the same again? sang that modern-day Heraclitus, the late, great Mark E Smith.

Which leaves us, to an extent, at the mercy of said commentators and analysts. And, when we do our pre- and post-match reading of the broadsheets and the tabloids and the websites and all the rest, at the mercy of the football writers.

A tricky situation, you might think, especially now that fake news has just been invented.

A little joke there.

But maybe not. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with football writers, after all. I’m one, or at least I used to be, for a while. Football writers tend to know a lot about football (though I am probably an exception to that rule). They spend years watching and thinking about and studying the game. They interview players and managers and they talk to and exchange ideas with other football writers. They don’t usually – despite much suspicion to the contrary – have an axe to grind or an agenda to push. If they support a team at all, they mostly leave their allegiances behind when they’re writing. Which should give them, you’d think, a clear, untrammelled vision of what they see and what they then communicate to us.

And it does, most of the time. Except these days, match reports and descriptions of the actual facts of the game are increasingly irrelevant – anyone who wants to can usually find a screen on which to watch the match themselves. Which means much of what we read, both in sport and news coverage, is preview and review, think pieces and opinion.

Works of interpretation.

Works of imagination.

Even – gulp – works of fiction.

Everything is true while nothing is accurate.

Never is that more the case than at the World Cup.

For many football writers, removed from their home turf and set adrift in foreign lands, World Cups (and Copas América, and sometimes even the Euros) represent unexplored territory. Some swotting must be done in advance. Guidebooks – perhaps even literature and history – perused. Local contacts and fixers sought out and brains picked. That staple diet of the foreign correspondent, the all-seeing, all-knowing street corner oracle who can sum up the views of millions with one tasty soundbite – “This Brazil team sucks ass!” says Pedro, 45, a plumber from Rio de Janeiro – becomes more precious than rhodium.

None of which, sadly, lends itself to profound cultural insight, unless a lot of literature and history is perused and a lot of brains picked (the writings of David Goldblatt are a notable exception).

I should know. I once portentously quoted Pablo Neruda in a piece at the 2015 Copa América in Chile, even though I’d been in Santiago for only a week, couldn’t speak Spanish and hadn’t read that much Neruda. But it probably sounded good. At least I hope it did.

Other factors add to the conundrum. The stakes are high, for one. The World Cup only comes around once every four years. The football writers have come a hell of a long way, so it better be worth it. It’s the greatest show on earth! 

Understatement, you see, is not an option.

At major tournaments, too, the football writer – a competitive beast at the best of times – is surrounded by his or her peers. Everyone is after the best story, the best angle, the best way of capturing not just the football, but also the cultural experience through which they are living. Searching for that one perfect metaphor that will crack Brazil (for example) open like a jackfruit and explain the country in all its lush, tropical ripeness!

Ahem.  

Hyperbole, in other words, is embraced. Hyperbole will not be turned away.

It certainly wasn’t four summers ago.

There were many stirring, evocative words written by football writers at the 2014 World Cup. Good words, too. Lovely words, in fact, if perhaps a little clichéd. The kids on the beach. The distracted policemen. The crazy taxi drivers. If I’d never been to Brazil, they’d certainly have got me, um, in the samba mood, conjuring up as they do an image of a passionate football nation, besotted with the eleven that represented it on the field. 

The only problem is that none of it is really true.

Though neither is it entirely false.

Everything is true while nothing is accurate.

It’s true that Brazilians like watching football.

Especially when the World Cup is on.

Most people do.

Especially because when doing a not particularly interesting job, TV makes the time go faster.

And because in many cases, watching TV is better than work.

And because the TV is on all the time in most Brazilian bars and restaurants anyway. If there’s no football on, it will be one of the daytime TV shows – perhaps the morning one with the talking parrot-puppet-thing and the middle-aged woman who has been Botox-ed to within an inch of her life, or the afternoon one where the presenters mourned the death of David Bowie by shouting “Baby Boy!” (at least that’s what it sounded like) and “Mega Rock Star!” and “Mega Actor!” while doing the heavy metal horns hand sign for about ten minutes.

And because watching football, especially at a big event which is all everyone’s talked about for months, is more interesting than the novelas or the aforementioned daytime TV shows.

It doesn’t necessarily mean Brazil is the most madly passionate football nation on earth.

Tostão, legend of the 1970s World Cup winning squad, for example, once told me that he didn’t think Brazilians really like football at all. They just like winning. They rarely care about the national team outside the World Cup, and they don’t even bother much about the tournament until it’s started. In the 12 years I spent living in the country I visited plenty of bars where drinkers sat with their backs to the TV while the Seleção played, unnoticed and unloved, behind them. 

Average Serie A attendances of around 15,000 would seem to bear out this theory.

And anyway, wouldn’t being the most madly passionate football nation on earth be a bit of an insult? Most people have better things to do than watch football all the time.

If it is a slight, we’ve all been guilty of it – a het-up below-the-line commentator once accused me of footballing orientalism in an article on Neymar’s links to Brazil’s jeitinho/malandro concept – in one form or another. 

As you’re about to see.

***

Brazil 1 - 7 Germany.

8 July 2014.

I wake up early in my flat in the uber-meh Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte and put some pão de queijo (a local delicacy) in the oven for myself and my overnight guest, a well-known Irish sports journalist and philosopher whom we’ll call Ken Early, because that’s his name. Newspaper and/or freelancer budgets and Brazilian hotel prices being what they are, a fair amount of spare-room squatting is going on at the competition.

We eat the pão de queijo. Ken Early seems to enjoy it.

Nothing much happens for a few hours – nothing that I can remember anyway. Perhaps we do some work or preparation for the game. I probably go and buy a paper. I can’t remember if there was a particular je ne sais quoi frisson on the streets – there probably was, because the World Cup semi-final was going to be played down the road later on and it was a half-day (or perhaps even a full-day) holiday.

Then we go and have lunch.

Then we get a taxi to the Mineirão.

“They’re cowards. Yellow like their shirts!” spits the taxista – presumably a less romantic, football-loving soul than the drivers who provided copy for so many football writers.

Strange, though. Surely by now all of Brazil has turned its lonely eyes to the Seleção, enraptured by Neymar and enchanted by, um, Fred?

Well, not really. Busted flush No.1: quite a few serious Brazilian football fans, by which I mean those who follow club football with some degree of dedication, actively dislike the national side. Or at least they much prefer their club side. Some of them see the Seleção as overpaid fancy dans who ditched beleaguered Brazil for the good life in Europe and have no pride in the shirt and are a stain on the glorious names of the past, most of whom, up until the mid-1980s, stayed at home.

It’s not a sophisticated view, but it’s a view.

Much like in England, serious Brazilian football fans are primarily obsessed with their clubs, which in turn form part of a strong state-based identity system (sou Paulista, sou Mineiro, sou Pernambucano, and so on). Your club is your tribe of choice in the endless, circular, faintly depressing network of intense local rivalries. I can’t remember if our Belo Horizonte taxi driver identified himself as Atleticano or Cruzeirense, but he was undoubtedly one or the other.

The national team, and all the weeping and gnashing of teeth that will come in a few hours’ time, represents something else. Something more remote and occasional, a bandwagon to be jumped upon which when on a roll can stir great feelings of national pride, jingoism and collective confidence. The Mineirão stadium where we are heading isn’t really much more than a gigantic Henman Hill – though it’s certainly hotter, rowdier, noisier and drunker.

Which is fine – the relationship between many everyday fans and their national sides is the same.

The only problem is that when such national teams are no longer winning, they get forgotten pretty quickly. And in the case of Brazil – where institutional political and administrative corruption has resulted in utter disdain among the populace for almost every official body or organisation – they can generate anger and disgust.

When they’re bad – and it’s worth remembering that Brazil have been crap for about a decade by this stage – the links between the dirty rotten scoundrels at the CBF and the Seleção suddenly seem a lot closer, and the national team can appear as inherently corrupt as the politicians or (some of) the police.

Everything is bought, everything’s for sale.

Hence the taxi driver’s outburst.

Then again, he could just be a dick. It’s not always a good idea to use one person as a mouthpiece for 200 million, especially when he doesn’t fit your narrative.

Once our discontented chauffeur drops us off, we make the long hike up to the Mineirão through throngs of almost exclusively middle- or upper-middle-class yellow-clad fans. They are in boisterous but apprehensive mood. Outside the ground an impromptu samba band has formed. Not many people are dancing. The residents of Belo Horizonte, which is kind of like the Birmingham of Brazil but not as interesting, can be a fairly buttoned-up lot.

The atmosphere is noisy and giddy and excitable, but not a patch on the pre-game buzz at the Atlético Mineiro v Olimpia of Paraguay Copa Libertadores final at the same stadium in 2013, when there were so many fireworks, and so much jumping up and down and shouting, that it felt that the roads might crack open. Which they often do in Belo Horizonte, though normally because of the rain.

Eventually we make it to the press box. The hot, smoky atmosphere in the stadium feels like the air just above the coals of a churrasco (look – see how easy it is?). The Brazilian fans do that thing where they keep singing the national anthem after the stadium music has finished. At the Confederations Cup in 2013, when the streets were engulfed with massive anti-everything (but especially Fifa and corrupt politicians) protests, it seemed a spontaneous and thrilling outburst. Now it has a sense of look-at-me tub-thumping about it – especially when sung by the impeccably skinned, gleaming-toothed monied fans at this game.

The message is nonetheless clear. Everyone is very excited and Brazil are going to win, despite being generally a bit not-very-good in the tournament so far (joyless in the group stages, fortunate against Chile in the last 16, thuggish and cynical against Colombia in the quarter-final) and Neymar being injured. Behind us are two Brazilian journalists who shall remain nameless. They are bullish and cocky.

“I think we can do it!” they say.

And then the game starts. And Germany start scoring. And don’t really stop scoring until the end. It’s like a basketball game where one team are the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman Bulls and the other team are little kids whose hands are too small to hold the ball. Or who don’t know that the aim of the game is to get the ball in the net. Or stop the other team from scoring. It’s the only explanation for the performance of David Luiz, who does a great job running about a lot without appearing to notice there’s a game of football going on.

If Tommy Wiseau was an athlete, he’d be David Luiz on 8 July 2014.

I sneak peeks behind me. The Brazilian journalists look like cartoon characters who’ve stuck their fingers in the electricity socket, with hair like Beaker from The Muppet Show and saucer sized eyes. I’m pretty sure they’re crying.

The foreign journalists around me – including the esteemed editor of The Blizzard – generally make OMG! WTF! emoji-type faces after each goal, then compose themselves out of respect for their profession, their employers and their hosts.

There seem to be a lot of people weeping in the crowd and lots of very sad/angry faces, but then Brazilians do tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves a bit more than gloomy northern Europeans and a lot of booze has been consumed and the expectations and anticipation were dangerously, dizzily high before the game. And then it’s over and the Brazilian players are slinking shamefully off the field. If they had jackets, you feel, they’d use them to cover their faces like the arrested bandidos on the early evening crime round-up shows.

In the press box everyone sits around saying how amazing it all was.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says one hack.

“Me neither,” says another.

“It was crazy!” adds a third.

We write our pieces. Most gush with hyperbole and melodrama. Mine says things like:

Brazilians had started to believe the romantic hype, and dream that their flawed team could win this World Cup. That dream has gone now, and when they wake up tomorrow they will look out on a duller, colder and emptier país do futebol. The soccer nation is in mourning.

See? Everybody does it? And that’s after 12 years of living in the place!

Because the soccer nation isn’t really in mourning, as we’re about to discover. Though obviously it sucks when you’re the World Cup host nation and you get knocked out and you still have to watch the final between bloody Germany and fucking Argentina.

No one deserves, like they say in these parts.

Everything is true but nothing is accurate.

We all get the press bus to the Savassi neighbourhood, expecting the streets to be filled with ash, the grey smoke of defeat to hang over everything. Brazilians sitting silently in bars, analysing their team’s failure, their inherent flaws as a nation, a people. Perhaps a mass suicide or two.

That kind of thing.

Except there isn’t. Instead, the streets are heaving like it’s carnaval. And everyone is probably drunker than they usually are at carnaval, which is going some. The bars are overflowing, the streets are sticky with spilt beer and crunchy with (accidentally, one suspects) broken glass. In every hidden nook and cranny bodies are a-bumpin’ and a-grindin’ – some to music, many to more intimate rhythms. We pale, doleful gringo men of letters inch nervously through the crowd, perplexed and perhaps disappointed that our apocalyptic narratives have not come true.

We find an expensive churrasco bar and the esteemed editor of The Blizzard, Ken Early and some others settle down for a slap-up meal. I go out into the windy, wilding streets to find out what the locals are making of it all.

My personal mouthpiece for 200 million is Marcio Andrade, an agricultural engineer, who is drinking in a nearby bar.

“Football isn’t the most important thing in the world, after all,” he says.

Well said, Marcio.

Later I do a radio interview with a major news service. It’s late now and I’m tired and bored so, ever the professional, I do it on the street outside the restaurant with a fag in one hand and a can of lager in the other. I can’t remember what I said, but I’m sure the words “seismic” and “mourning” and “end of a dream” featured heavily.

Give the people – in this case the major news service – what they want.

And I’m not the only one.

After the hour of sporting glory comes the hour of suffering… losing touches something deeper than victory, losing is to find the place where everything slowly starts to begin again from defeat.

So wrote the great Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

Well, yeah. I suppose. But not really. You just get on with things, don’t you, Carlos lad?

The narratives from 2014 will spin on to 2018. If Brazil come up against Germany there will be a thousand references to that “fateful day in July” four years ago. There certainly were at the 2016 Olympic final, when a semi-senior Brazilian side including Neymar squeaked past what at times looked like a Germany schoolboy XI and were hoisted aloft on the shoulders of the nation (I can’t help myself!) like when Luke and R2D2 get back from blowing up the Death Star.

And now it is Russia’s turn. With samovar in one hand and a copy of The Master and Margarita in the other, we ready ourselves – assuming ultimate World Cup glory is not in the hosts’ future – for tales of a “brave, proud nation drowning its sorrows in vodka” and defeated locals looking as “rueful as Raskolnikov”.

And on and on it goes.

I suppose we should just enjoy it.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it. I’m only a football writer.

And as someone once said, everything is true, nothing is accurate.