Notes from a Tournament
From Budapest to Buenos Aires: the story of Brazil 2014
The stands of the vast bowl were mostly empty. A week before the World Cup began, only 3500 people had turned up for Hungary’s friendly against Albania, leaving tens of thousands of empty seats in red, white and green, so redundant they seemed like some experiment in the effects of the sun on fading plastic. There is surely is no sadder sporting venue in the world than the Ferenc Puskás Stadium in Budapest. It used to be known as the Népstadion – the People’s Stadium – built by “volunteer” labour in the years immediately after the Second World War to house the great national side of Puskás, Jozsef Bozsik and Sandor Kocsis. Back then, it could hold more than 100,000 and both stadium and team had a majesty.
Hungary won the 1952 Olympic football competition as part of an unbeaten run that lasted almost four years. They were individually skilful and tactically radical, playing what their coach, Gusztav Sebes, insisted was “socialist football”: they seemed to embody the potential of the new Communist state. 60 years ago in May, Hungary beat England 7-1 in the Népstadion, England’s heaviest ever defeat. They seemed certain to win the World Cup in Switzerland a few weeks later but, having taken a 2-0 lead against West Germany in the final, they lost, 3-2. Germans know the game as Das Wunder von Bern, a game that made them feel like a nation again, but in Hungary it was a disaster.
There were demonstrations on the street, a spontaneous outpouring of grief and anger. In them, the goalkeeper Gyula Grosics insisted, lay the seeds of the 1956 Uprising: people came to understand that if they protested in sufficient numbers, they could not be controlled. Hungarian football has never been the same since. They failed to qualify for this World Cup, losing 8-1 to the Netherlands on the way. Against Albania, they scrambled their way to a dismal 1-0 win, the goal a penalty won and converted by Tamás Priskin, a player who never quite cut it at Watford. As the journalist Henrik Hedegűs put it, “Other countries who used to be good might be rubbish now, but at least they have the odd player. We have nobody.” By the end of the World Cup, they didn’t even have Grosics, who died on June 17 aged 88 to leave the right-back Jenő Buzánszky as the only survivor of the side that won at Wembley.
What was most striking was the mood of apathy among the crowd. Fans seemed to be there more to laugh at mistakes – players falling over, air shots, finishes ballooned over the bar – than to support their team or appreciate good play. I asked a few how they felt about the mounting evidence – supported by the German Olympic Committee and a report from Humboldt University in Berlin – that the West Germany team that had beaten them in 1954 had been injected with pervitin, an amphetamine that had been used in wartime to keep soldiers awake. Most just shrugged: either it was too long ago to care or that was just the way things were.
In Oslo the Thursday before the World Cup, the Norwegian broadcaster TV2 held a seminar on how the five African qualifiers were likely to fare at the tournament. The former Norway coach Egil Olsen raised the question of whether it made any sense to speak of national styles anymore. Nobody doubts that the constant movement of coaches and players and the availability of foreign football through satellite television and the internet have had a homogenising effect, but perhaps the most interesting point was that made by Frode da Costa-Lia, the editor of the Norwegian magazine Josimar. If Germany were playing Brazil, he suggested, and you were watching on a fuzzy black-and-white television so the exact details of kit and players’ faces were unclear, you wouldn’t know which was which: Willian, Ramires and Fred seem German in their muscularity, while Mario Götze, Mesut Özil and Marco Reus appear Brazilian in their technical virtuosity. It was a point that seemed particularly apposite a month later.
If you want to be a part of the 2014 World Cup as something other than a paying customer, you need a credential.
It’s about the size of a postcard. You know, those quaint bits of cardboard, usually with a landscape photograph on one side and space to write an address and a brief missive on the other. It’s laminated and fits neatly into a transparent plastic sleeve, which itself is attached to a lanyard. Most journalists wear it around their necks. Some – perhaps to make a kind of fashion statement or maybe for security reasons – put it around their neck but also slip their arm through, so that it hangs across their chest, like a bike messenger’s satchel.
There are different colours based on what Fifa calls your “function” – a term which always struck me as a bit impersonal and reductive. If you’re a member of the press, you get yellow. Those with the local organising committee get brown, as do Fifa suits, except for those who get black. Everybody needs to have one, even players and members of Fifa’s Executive Committee, though, to be fair, on the three occasions I got near enough to Sepp Blatter in a stadium, I couldn’t tell if he was wearing his.
My credential gave me access to zones 3 (“Public Areas” – not really a big deal), 6 (“Media Tribune”) and 7 (“Media Centre”). The bigshots get zones 1 (“Field of Play”) through to 9 (“Hospitality Area”).
To get it, I had to go to one of the Accreditation Centres, helpfully located near each of the 12 World Cup venues. Because I was staying in Rio, I went to the one next to the Maracanã. It was a pre-fabricated white building in the forecourt of the Aquatic Center, with its Olympic-sized outdoor pool. You just know there must be some kind of company – perhaps in Düsseldorf or Nagoya or some place like that – which specialises in producing such anonymous, multi-purpose structures. Modular, I believe, is the technical term. Depressingly ubiquitous is how it felt on the day.
Getting the credential at this stage is pretty straight-forward. You show up with the email Fifa sent you informing you that your accreditation request had been accepted and your passport and, after a short wait, you get your bit of laminated access. Reaching this point, however, isn’t quite that easy.
Even to apply, you need to be in Fifa’s database. And you get into the database either by having your media organisation apply for you (if you’re part of the near extinct breed of journalists who is actually on staff somewhere) or by writing to them and proving you’re a legitimate football writer.
So how do Fifa decide who gets a credential and who does not? It’s a long, negotiated process with many circuitous routes. In very general terms, they determine a number of credentials for each country, usually based on history, size, amount of coverage, whether or not that nation has qualified for the World Cup and that sort of thing. They then liaise with that country’s football federation which gives advice on how many each media organisation should get. And then there’s more negotiation after those who’ve been rejected complain.
I thought about this as I waited in line to collect my credential and chatted with Franco Zuccala, an Italian journalist who’s covered every World Cup since 1966. What did his credential look like in 66?
“I had a letter I took everywhere with me,” he told me. “The letter said: ‘This man says he is an Italian journalist in this country to report on the football. Please admit him and afford him the necessary care, subject to availability.’ I got in everywhere!”
Those days are long gone. And it’s probably for the better, given some of the characters I’d spied turning up with credentials in the first few World Cups I covered. Like the teenage kid from a Latin American country and his mother, both credentialed for a newspaper that doesn’t exist apart from on the application they sent to Fifa. Or the guy who carried a duffel bag filled with jerseys, caps, warm-up jackets, even a team bib, and harassed players for their autographs as they filed past after games.
That was in the 1990s. Today Fifa does a much better job of ensuring that folks with credentials are actually there to work. At worst, you’ll get the odd guy wandering around without a laptop or a notebook, trying to work out how to take a selfie with Joachim Löw’s press conference in the background.
Having a credential doesn’t mean you get to sit and watch games. For that you’ll need a press ticket and that involves a whole other application process that we’ll get to in a minute. But the credential does allow you to get into the stadium media centres or, as Fifa like to call them, SMCs.
The SMC is essentially a holding pen for journalists: a large room filled with desks, big-screen monitors, lockers, internet access and a snack bar. It’s reminiscent of the children’s play areas you find at airports or at the dentists’ office. A place with enough distractions to keep them busy enough that they don’t start wandering off and doing other stuff (like maybe original reporting of the kind that organisers don’t like). They’re also wholly impersonal, in the sense that you could be in any SMC at any World Cup anywhere in the world. Even the smiling, polo-shirt clad volunteers who greet you at the welcome desk and hand out team sheets come from (almost) every corner of the globe.
(Come to think of it, there was one – important – difference between the SMCs in South Africa and the Brazil 2014 versions. The former offered snacks like boerewors and biltong, the latter had a range of salgados, savoury pastries with potato and/or cheese. Plus, of course, Guaraná. Beyond that, it was all much of a muchness.)
A bit like the accreditation centres, the SMCs also have that temporary, modular, portakabin feel to them. And it makes sense because, once the World Cup caravan rolls out of town, these stadiums will likely never have to babysit so much media ever again. Getting into the SMC is akin to boarding a flight: first your credential is scanned, then you walk through a metal detector while your belongings go through an X-ray scanner. Bizarrely, sometimes you had to go through the metal detector and scanner when you left the stadium as well.
The media credential only gets you as far as the SMC. To get into the press box, you need a media ticket. You apply for these online, via a secure website and, as ever, Fifa decides who gets in and who gets to sit and watch the match on the SMC monitors. Indeed, even among those who get match tickets there is something of a hierarchy, with some getting proper desks and chairs and others crammed into seats, with their laptop on their, well, lap.
Inevitably, folks lose out, despite the ever-expanding press boxes at World Cup grounds. One out of every thirty people in the stands for the 2014 World Cup Final at the Maracanã was an accredited journalist. That’s roughly 2500 people. To which you can add the hundreds (if not more) stowed down in the SMC.
In that sense, not everyone with a World Cup credential is created equal. Access is scarce and, as with any scarce resource, it’s doled out carefully. There’s always a balance to be struck between countries and media who cover the game regularly and in-depth and those where journalists are as much evangelists as chroniclers.
By the same token, that laminated postcard-sized cardboard rectangle does have a democratising effect. You end up working alongside folks who are asked to interpret or deconstruct the very same game you are watching. Except not only do they do it from a different perspective, they do it with an entirely different lens as well.
For some five weeks, you hardly remove your credential. Its constant presence reminds you of the privilege and responsibility you have towards your audience: to provide insight and storytelling on something, the World Cup, which doesn’t matter intrinsically, but which is hugely important because people choose to attach value to it. And when you think about it, that’s what makes it special. People choose football. And they choose to read what you have to say about it.
“This?” said the volunteer, holding up a bottle of water and shaking her head. “No.”
“No,” she said.
And so began the scandal of the stadium food. Fans, obviously - and probably rightly – don’t care for journalists’ whines, but there’s something infuriatingly petty about the way Fifa refused to allow us to take our own food or drink into stadiums. When you’re there for 10 or 12 hours at a time, you end up having to pay three or four times the going rate for dismal (and unhealthy) food and drink, often having to queue for up to an hour for the privilege. Oh for the McCafes of the Euros!
Niko Kovač clenched his jaw and narrowed his eyes, looking more like Joseph Gordon-Levitt than ever. “It was never a penalty,” he said. “It was ridiculous. Brazil and Croatia played a great opening match but the referee was completely out of his depth. It doesn’t have anything to do with that particular referee but with the fact that we are here in Brazil and Brazil are huge favourites to win the World Cup. Whenever you play somewhere the hosts might have an advantage, but we are playing football — the rules of the game apply to both teams. Fifa’s slogan is ‘respect’ — respect for both teams and this is what we are after. If we continue in this way we will have a circus. I am not the sort of person to blame referees but we are the first to play Brazil so I have to say it: things have to improve.”
He was right. It wasn’t just the astonishingly soft penalty the referee Yuichi Nishimura gave for a supposed foul by Dejan Lovren on Fred, it was his officiating throughout the game, the way he gave Brazil every possible advantage. Perhaps he was influenced by a noisy and partisan crowd, perhaps he felt he had in some way to make up for having sent off Felipe Melo in Brazil’s defeat to the Netherlands in the quarter-final in 2010; whatever the reason, it was easy to understand Croatian players wondering whether there had been any point in playing the game or whether the tournament was simply set up for Brazil to win.
It was a tremendous shame, for the opening match had otherwise been excellent, certainly by comparison with a prosaic opening ceremony: there seemed something terribly symbolic when two of the three doves of peace released just before kick-off struggled to get high enough to clear the stands before flopping, presumably dead, into the seats; the third survived, but spent the second half hopping suspiciously around the press box. Croatia had played well, exposing Brazil’s weakness behind the full-backs and until the penalty, which Neymar converted for his second goal of the game, they had held their own. A 3-1 win, as subsequent events would underline, flattered the hosts.
After the opening fixture in São Paulo I flew to Belo Horizonte to take in Colombia’s tournament opener against Greece. Having predicted that José Pékerman’s side would do great things in this competition, I was also looking forward to witnessing the invasion of Beagá by the huge number of Colombians who had decided to travel across the continent to witness their first World Cup finals game in 16 years.
100,000 travelling fans were estimated, arriving by clapped-out car, overcrowded bus or – if your Colombian peso stretched far enough – by plane. Needless to say, the influx took its toll on the already relentless traffic of Minas Gerais’s largest city and my hope that I’d get to my hotel in time to watch Spain against the Netherlands quickly evaporated.
By the time I got into a taxi it was 1-1 and it sounded as though I hadn’t exactly missed a classic. But sitting in the back of a car with exhaust fumes mingling with the humid air, I could only listen on the radio as an extraordinary game began to unfold. With the Brazilian radio commentary going at 4000 words per second, social media proved the best way of making any sense of what was going on with my broken Portuguese.
It had become obvious from the prolonged noise emerging from the car’s central console that there had been a goal. There were lots of indecipherable letters and words, some kitsch goal music (which we should be delighted has never made it to England) and I could just make out “Arzhen Roooooooooobbeeeeeeeeeeeeen” from the rubble that was the commentator’s voice.
And then there’s another. “Ah, Spain must be level,” I think to myself, irritatedly looking around to see how quickly this traffic will move. 3-1.
“GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO….” exploded from the radio once more: surely the Spanish are back in it now?
But they weren’t: they were being trounced and the world was keen to say just how incredible this game was, only just stopping short of shouting, “God, I would hate to be stuck in the back of a taxi, sweating profusely and unable to watch this match.”
Salvador’s beachfront has things going for it. It faces eastward towards the Atlantic, so every night the sun sets spectacularly over the palm trees and old Portuguese colonial forts. Unfortunately the sun also sets over the brigades of labourers who are still digging up part of the beachfront mid-World Cup. Presumably someone from the city council told the construction company, “This has to be ready before the World Cup. Put all your people onto it,” and now they are still going. The sun also sets over the leaky Portaloos, put there to service us World Cup visitors and the homeless people who hang around the beach all day. In many places in Salvador, sewer smells rise to hit you. Brazil will probably be finishing its preparations for the World Cup for some years yet.
Before Argentina’s match against Iran in Belo Horizonte, I’d been charged with writing a 700-word side-bar on how Leo Messi performed, preferably to land with the desk before the final whistle because of printing deadlines. That may seem a predictable idea but, as was the case throughout this World Cup, it remained relevant. Messi had somewhat under-performed in the opening 2-1 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina but had still managed the momentous feat of scoring in the Maracanã, and the build-up to the second match had been dominated by a debate over whether he had demanded that Alejandro Sabella revert to a 4-3-3. As such, my commission was initially quite easy, precisely because the playmaker found the game so tough. Although there were typical flashes of brilliance, there was also a lethargy and a general inability to impose himself on an impressive Iranian backline.
By the 70th minute, as Carlos Quieroz’s defence only became more durable, the intro to the piece became easier still: “Leo Messi may have got his formation, but he didn’t respond with the required display.” That, as well as another 600-plus words about the reasons for an underwhelming performance, were sent just after the 90th minute. I looked up from clicking ‘send’ to see Messi shape, shoot and send the ball flying into the net for the winner.
He had changed the game, the result… and the nature of every single piece of coverage.
Rewrites had to be rattled together in about five minutes, give or take the good grace of certain desks.
Yet, for all the difficulty in slightly changing the tone of 700 words to reflect a completely different outcome (“Despite his last-minute wonder-goal…”), it was impossible not to admire the wonder of what he had just done, to be taken along with the moment. One of the best players of all time had just offered the kind of event that makes the World Cup so timeless.
Outside the bakery, a blind beggar shakes a few coins in a Pringles tube.
A block further on, a fat man in a wheelchair listlessly sells towels on the street corner.
Head on towards the beach and you pass Praça do Lido, a small park that always stinks of piss. And then, there you are, on the beach-front at Copacabana. Beyond the Fan Fest, the beach arcs away for a couple of miles to the temporary TV studios and the fort. It’s an odd place, deeply tacky in some ways, yet still carrying a whiff of the glamorous decadence of the thirties and forties when celebrities flocked to the Copacabana Palace, the hotel from which, later in the tournament, Luis Suárez would be evicted after his accreditation was revoked. And it’s awesome in the truest sense: no matter how familiar the view may be from television and film, there’s still something deeply impressive about the way the mountains rise up from the sea, the apartment blocks, restaurants and hotels squeezed in to a tiny strip only four blocks deep.
This feels like the emotional centre of the World Cup. The front is lined with cars and camper vans, the majority driven there by fans from Argentina. In the mornings, they huddle round Primus stoves heating water to brew maté. Many have slept on the beach, or on the benches that are dotted along the coast road, invading the space of the homeless who always live there. At night, Copacabana is raucous, fans of all nationalities mixing and chanting, the exact make-up changing according to who’s playing: the largest contingents are Argentinians, Chileans and Colombians, but there are also significant numbers of French and Germans, Mexicans and fans from the US.
It’s anarchic, and feels like a giant V-sign to Fifa and the corporatism of the World Cup and yet at the same time, what is this but a slightly shabbier, slightly swearier, slightly boozier version of those nauseating ads that feature some idealised version of the Fifa family? Most fans wear national shirts, many have painted faces, and the vast majority at some point will visit the high temple of Fifa corporatism, the Fan Fest, where face-painting costs £7.80 and Fifa wine £126.
There was a clatter of running feet on the carpeted boards of the media centre. These photographers, I thought, really needed to get a grip of themselves. I looked up and saw people charging about, many of them grabbing phones and cameras. There seemed to be a congregation at the far side of the room. There’d been a story about half an hour earlier suggesting that Diego Maradona had been denied entry to the Maracanã. He must have got in, I thought. Still, even by his standards, this seemed a noisy feeding frenzy. Then the wall collapsed, two sections of the partition separating the media centre from the concourse falling inwards, taking banks of lockers and a few televisions with them. A third section soon followed. Finally, I realised something was amiss. A group of perhaps a dozen people in red shirts ran past, followed by stadium security in fluorescent vests, followed by photographers. It was the most farcical procession I’d seen since the foreign paparazzi had decided to pap the British paparazzi papping the security chasing Carly Zucker, Joe Cole’s wife, in the park outside the Wag hotel in Baden-Baden in 2006. All it needed to be a full-scale Benny Hill sketch was a model in complicated lingerie.
It turned out around 100 Chile fans had stormed security at the media entrance – which required them to do nothing more complicated than rush by some bored volunteers with scanners for checking accreditation – and then run through the airport-style metal detectors. They’d made a serious tactical error, though: they’d charged straight towards the pitch, smashing a door and clattering into the confusion of the media centre, whereas, if they’d turned back on themselves, they’d have found only two more bored volunteers with scanners standing between them and escalators that led straight up into the stands. By the shattered door a small pile of debris was left: a heap of sawdust (source unclear) topped by a cap, a Chilean flag, a pair of sunglasses and four shoes – a pair of orange crocs, one white croc and one grey trainer.
In total 85 Chileans were arrested. They were led away by police in a long column, each with one hand placed on the shoulder of the fan in front, so they resembled nothing so much as the Brazil team coming out for the anthems.
Xabi Alonso gave away possession cheaply on the Spain left. Methodically, precisely, Chile progressed down the flank. Alexis Sánchez exchanged passes with Arturo Vidal, then slipped a devastating pass into the box for Charles Aranguíz. He played it square across the edge of the six-yard box, for Eduardo Vargás, who sidestepped Iker Casillas and, falling backwards, jabbed the ball into the net. The rest was merely confirmation: the Spanish empire had fallen, the end coming, to borrow Hemingway’s line about bankruptcy, first gradually and then suddenly.
There had been signs of vulnerability over the previous two years, in the 3-0 reverse against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final and in surprising defeats in friendlies that perhaps shouldn’t have been blamed as readily as they were on weariness brought on by the Spanish federation’s determination to flog its champions around the world in search of lucre. Players aged, hunger waned, doubts crept in. Was Casillas quite as good as he had been? Was Xavi running out of legs? With teams more comfortable in combatting the tiki-taka style, was there need for a more orthodox centre-forward? And what was going on with Gerard Pique’s defending?
When enough cracks converge, the edifice collapses. There may have been doubts about Spain, but nobody had predicted this level of capitulation. But that’s often the way it is with the great teams – and amidst the debris of this defeat, it shouldn’t be forgotten just how great this Spain was: when they go, they are shattered. The reasons for that are many and varied, but in Spain’s case it seemed that it had forgotten how to cope with a match in which it wasn’t in control and then, certainly against the Netherlands, having fallen behind chased the game recklessly and so exposed the weakest part of its team – the defence – to the strongest part of the Dutch – the pace of Arjen Robben. Perhaps also there was a sense that the desire had gone, as there has been at Barcelona last season: having given so much to win so much, is there any energy left to cling on?
Many argued Spain’s early exit represented the end of tiki-taka, but that is to oversimplify the issue. While it probably is the case that tiki-taka has lost its aura, the decline of Spain is more to do with the decline of a generation of players than with the end of a tactical approach. Spain still had more possession than Chile, as they had had more possession than the Netherlands, but both opponents, by using a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3 were able to flood the areas in which Spain like to craft their triangles of approach, and by pressing high were able to take advantage of their attacking pace. It’s no coincidence that Chile unsettled Spain more than any other side in South Africa four years ago, but that was a brighter, more energised Spain that was able to respond.
Every doubt about Spain became reality. After the opening game Pique and Xavi were discarded, and Casillas surely would have been had Spain’s two reserve keepers not been David De Gea, who was injured, and Pepe Reina, who had seemingly been brought because he’s good for the esprit de corps (and, true to type, was the last Spain player to disappear down the tunnel, having consoled each of his teammates as they passed him).
Casillas was badly at fault for Chile’s second goal, batting Alexis Sánchez’s free-kick straight to Charles Aranguíz, who scooped in the rebound. But it wasn’t just Casillas at fault. This was a leaden performance by Spain as a whole. Diego Costa clumped his one chance into the side netting. Xabi Alonso had probably his worst ever game in a Spain shirt. Pedro was ineffectual. And when Spain needed inspiration from the bench, Vicente Del Bosque turned to Fernando Torres, who lolloped around as mournfully and ineffectively as he has at Stamford Bridge for the past three years.
Every now and again, a huge roar would go up from the Chileans packed into the bar next to the Lebanese restaurant where I was eating a late meal with a handful of other journalists. Eventually, intrigued as to what was prompting the cheers, we started paying attention. A chubby middle-aged man, face pinkened by the sun, approached from the direction of the beach front, holding the hand of a woman far younger, far slimmer and far more seductively dressed. As he passed the Chileans, they got to their feet, some standing on the tables, applauding and shouting encouragement. The man turned from lobster to beetroot and shuffled on by.
Remorselessly, the waves break on the beach at São Conrado. It’s a grey, slightly muggy afternoon, and the cameras are gathering outside the England team hotel. Somebody from the BBC has set up a laptop on a camera case and a dozen or so journalists stand around it, glumly watching Italy get caught offside against Costa Rica, over and over and over again. Costa Rica lead 1-0, a result that will put England out fewer than 150 hours after their World Cup kicked off. Slowly, the realisation sinks in that Italy aren’t going to break through, that they are, appropriately if annoyingly, playing like England at their worst.
The game finishes and I’m interviewed on the World Service. I’ve got to do another slot half an hour later, so I nip into a nearby shopping centre to get some coffee. On the way back, four cups balanced precariously under my chin, I pass Greg Dyke, the chairman of the FA. He looks disappointed but resigned and mumbles about it being a hard group and England not having played that badly.
I broadly sympathise. I found myself out of step with the public mood after the Italy game, baffled by the positivity. It wasn’t that England had been dreadful, far from it, but they had been defensively extremely lax. The same flaws had then undone them against Uruguay, when what seemed to me a similar performance to the Italy game had attracted far more criticism. “Things happen in football,” said Roy Hodgson, for which he was generally ridiculed. But he was right: England probably had marginally the better of both games but were undone by defensive sloppiness. Things had happened – and over the short span of the World Cup, that can mean elimination.
The press-conferences are over, the pieces are filed, the sun has set. A shuttle into the centre of São Paulo, a quick meal and, maybe, the luxury of six hours sleep. Except there’s a queue to leave the stadium. It turns out our bags are being X-rayed on the way out as well as on the way in.
“Why are you scanning us on the way out?” I asked a volunteer.
“Security,” she said.
“We don’t know.”
“But what are you looking for?”
“We don’t know.”
“But you must be looking for something. You’re not just scanning the bags for fun, right?”
“A bottle of whisky.”
“Somebody’s stolen a bottle of Fifa whisky?”
“Yes.” She sounded relieved. I think she was lying – although why they were really scanning our bags remained a mystery. Given journalists were searched after at least one other game in São Paulo, Fifa whisky must have been especially attractive to thieves.
Jordan Ayew hurtled down the left, cut inside, looked up and saw Asamoah Gyan in space, just waiting for the ball to be squared. Ayew shot and Manuel Neuer saved. Had he squared it, had Gyan scored as he surely should have done, Germany would have been 3-1 down with a little over 20 minutes remaining. As it was, Miroslav Klose levelled from close range and Germany got away with a draw.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have made that much difference had they lost – after all, they’d still have topped the group with a win over the USA unless Ghana, who played rather better than their results suggested, had hammered Portugal in their final match – but the incident did highlight the fragility of Germany early in the tournament, something that was shown up by Algeria in the last 16. Only when they went back to basics, with Philipp Lahm returning to right-back did they find the solidity that would propel them to the title.
The ball was headed forward. For once, James Rodríguez had found a pocket of space. He controlled the ball on his chest, turning so it dropped into the arc of his left foot. He hit a magnificent volley, powerful but controlled, just over the hand of Fernando Muslera and in off the underside of the bar. In some ways his second goal in Colombia’s last 16 win over Uruguay, turned in from six yards from Juan Cuadrado’s header back across the box, was better – and the feint and dink against Japan was pretty special as well – but it was the first goal that consecrated his genius. He finished as the World Cup’s top scorer and, strange as it may seem to say for a player who had moved for €40million the previous year, the tournament’s real break-out star, elevated from promising talent to household name.
For three days, Diego Lugano had been railing against the English-speaking media, claiming they were prime culprits in Luis Suárez supposedly being harshly treated for his bite on Giorgio Chiellini. It culminated in Oscar Tabárez’s bizarre press conference before Uruguay’s second-round game against Colombia, in which he – being generous – attempted to use the controversy to build some kind of siege mentality. The event was one of the oddest moments of the tournament, as the Uruguay manager read out an obstinate statement and refused to take any questions before departing.
It had no effect. Uruguay’s defiance didn’t translate to the pitch, as Colombia – especially James Rodríguez – rolled them over 2-0.
Afterwards, Lugano was speaking freely in the mixed zone, willing to tell everyone that the plight of Suárez was about more than football or one World Cup elimination. He was talking about human rights.
Then, he came by us.
Journalist: “Diego, any words for the English press?”
At least he did it with a smile.
I had spent most of my time tramping up and down Brazil, from Rio to São Paulo to Campinas to Curitiba, to Cuiaba, then Brasilia and Porto Alegre before returning to Rio. It had been four years since I’d seen Gabriele Marcotti. The last time had been in South Africa at the 2010 World Cup. This is not to say I was looking forward to see him, but I thought catching up would be nice.
I hooked up with him and a subdued but quietly confident Raphael Honigstein in Rio after France had truncated Nigeria’s World Cup campaign. Dinner was the result and we took a short walk to a bubbly district where Marcotti claimed the food was great. It seemed he was right, for once. Everywhere was crowded and we hadn’t reserved a table. So we were forced to stand and wait outside.
We weren’t alone. It wasn’t long before there was a queue building up behind us. And then this Scandinavian-looking chap, leading a raucous group of four, stepped up to me, totally ignoring the fact that I was involved in animated conversation about the commercial benefits of Brazilian hair with Marcotti and Honigstein and asked me for a table.
I’m not quite sure which of the three of us was more shocked. But quickest to recover was Gab, who pointed out that we were also customers and the waiters were inside.
I couldn’t decide whether to feel insulted or annoyed. But with Honigstein going on about how he would make life unbearable for Marcotti if Germany won the World Cup, it was easier to just laugh it off and move on.
At last, there was space for Lionel Messi. Having been shackled for 117 minutes, he suddenly found himself able to accelerate towards the Switzerland goal. Defenders panicked and converged on him, just as Brazil’s defence had panicked and converged on Diego Maradona in the last 16 in 1990. And, just like Maradona in 1990, Messi waited and chose the perfect moment to push the ball through to an overlapping teammate. What Claudio Caniggia had done then, Ángel Di María did this time, scoring the only goal of the game. Argentina were through to the quarter-final.
The bigger question, though, was about Messi, who was having a strange World Cup, largely uninvolved and yet decisive. The naked eye suggested he was wandering around, bursting into life to produce one or two key moments per game, and the stats backed up that perception, showing he was running less than any other outfield player. In as much as he kept doing enough, it didn’t really matter, but the question was whether it was the double marking to which he was often subjected that made him play like that, or whether there might be some kind of physical problem. It still hasn’t been explained why he has started vomiting on the pitch, while before the final, quotes initially attributed to his father and then denied suggested he had said his legs “felt as though they weighed 100kg”. Whether he said it or not, he certainly played like it.
Argentina had dreamed Messi would produce a performance like Maradona’s in 1986, when he seized the World Cup, bent it to his will and dragged Argentina to glory. What they got was the Maradona of 1990, fitfully involved, demonstrating flickers of his genius, but ultimately not quite delivering.
The scene in the Leme restaurant was relaxed, as French and German supporters mingled before their Maracanã quarter-final, but the scene on the television suddenly took a rather different tack. Initially, it seemed like the Brazilian channel was putting together one of those historic pre-game packages that every TV station in the world does. There were shots of Mats Hummels heading the ball, Karim Benzema smashing in a finish, before it naturally segued into images from the momentous 1982 World Cup semi-final between the two countries, immediately establishing the historical dimensions of this quarter-final. Then, they went a bit beyond that. Pictures of Klaus Fischer bicycle-kicking the ball into the net became black-and-white pictures of Parisian citizens being beaten, and footage of the Nazi occupation of Paris. It was an unhelpful, distasteful and largely irrelevant diversion but the theme seemed to dominate the minds of some Brazilian media, given that the Second World War was twice mentioned in the pre-match press conferences. Both Didier Deschamps and Jogi Löw tactfully evaded the questions, while the supporters paid the old images no heed. In the restaurant in Leme, the TV may have been showing dreadful images of the past, but everyone beneath was sitting happily in the present.
When Juan Camilo Zúñiga drove his knee into Neymar’s back, the glorious chaos was at an end. Until that moment, the World Cup had been refereed with a light touch regulation which made those who oversaw the banks in the years before the credit crunch look like Marxist-Leninists who had read too much Keynes. But once Neymar’s World Cup was over, a nation wept and it was time for toughness.
Fifa denied they had instructed referees to be lenient and before the competition ended there would be another debate about concussion as players were allowed to demonstrate their spirit by returning to the field with head injuries when they probably should not have.
As Brazil watched over Neymar, it seemed football had paid for its recklessness. Neymar was out there weeping and Brazil were mourning him too. He was gone forever – or six to eight weeks – and this tragic situation could have been avoided with tougher refereeing. But should the fact that Neymar was inches from being paralysed be allowed to overshadow the joy the World Cup provided, particularly in the group stages when some games appeared to be taking place with no referee at all?
Brazil’s game against Colombia may have contained 54 fouls and as such was seen as the nadir for the particular brand of aggression which was tolerated at the World Cup. But this only told part of the story. Brazil-Colombia was the last game in the tournament which represented the values of the group matches, a high-intensity demonstration of the strengths and weaknesses of anarchy as a football philosophy.
The World Cup thrived in the opening round because of a collective commitment to disorder, a collective which seemed to include the officials even if Fifa insisted it didn’t. There were matches when the officials looked intent on testing the cliché that the best referees are the ones you don’t notice. Certainly the referees you don’t notice tend to be letting players get away with a lot.
There may have been more fouls in the Brazil-Colombia game than any other match but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the roughest. It might only have signified fussiness on the part of the referee. The City of Westminster is not a more dangerous place than the Wild West because they issue more parking tickets. But Neymar’s injury seemed to bring an end to it all. Was his injury too high a price to pay for what we had witnessed before it, bearing in mind that he wasn’t actually paralysed?
There were matches where the spirit of liberality seemed worth it. Ecuador-Honduras, for example, was not a game that was going to have prime time schedulers falling out over who should be allowed to show it. Yet it turned out to be 90 minutes of watchable fury which took place in the presence of a referee who decided to allow many vigorous challenges rather than be viewed as one of those fastidious cranks who stops plays whenever he feels like it.
The approach ensured that Ecuador-Honduras was more entertaining than most could have anticipated, a game which was futuristic and medieval at the same time, designed to appeal to the shortened attention span of a modern TV audience while treating the participants as an experiment in the true meaning of faster, higher, stronger – or stronger, stronger, stronger.
I watched the game in a Rio boteco and it was fascinating how it came to grip the people sitting around me. Few would have based their Friday night around Ecuador-Honduras but soon the diners became transfixed. This was a game which would compensate for the absence of most of the things people expect from a top-quality football match with great bejaysus. For most people outside Ecuador and Honduras that was probably enough. There were 32 fouls in the game according to Fifa – a long way off the Brazil-Colombia record high – but then again Ecuador-Honduras was the kind of game where to award one foul for a trifling matter would be to award several hundred.
Instead the game kept its head down, let others rack up the record foul totals and offered another example of what can happen when chaos is allowed some room to breathe. “The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies,” William Faulkner once remarked. Perhaps something similar can be said about the World Cup and, depending on your viewpoint, you will see Neymar as either the Keats poem or the old ladies.
Statistics can be dreadfully misleading, particularly in a tournament of such restricted length as a World Cup. There was much excitement when five of the six South American teams went though to the knockout phase, with many hailing a South American World Cup for South American people. And perhaps the number of fans from Argentina, Chile and Colombia, as well as the Brazilians, did make a difference. But then Ecuador went out in the group phase, meaning only 83% of Conmebol teams had progressed. Four years ago in South Africa, five of five Conmebol teams went through. So was that a South African World Cup for South American people?
Two of the Conmebol teams fell in the last 16, another one in the quarter-final and one in the semi, although given that three of the five to make it to the knockout stage were eliminated by other Conmebol sides, perhaps that doesn’t mean too much. Africa had two representatives in the last 16 for the first time, Nigeria and Algeria, which suggests progress, although the shambolic nature of Cameroon’s tournament and Ghana’s squabbles didn’t. Concacaf got three teams to the last 16 and Costa Rica reaching the quarter-finals, making it their most successful tournament, while Asia disappointed badly. Iran were disciplined but limited, Australia game but lacking quality, South Korea abject and Japan dull.
And at the end of it all, a European side won for the third tournament in a row, the first time that has ever happened.
Brazil’s collapse was pitiful, a shambolic abnegation of responsibility from a side whose sense of entitlement, in retrospect, always rendered it liable to such capitulation. The absence of Neymar made a difference tactically, of course, but as Brazil were demolished it became apparent the extent to which they’d needed him emotionally as well. He had been the lightning rod for the pressure the host nation brought to bear; it wasn’t just he had played well, but he had conducted himself with remarkable good humour. Even after his injury, when all about him seemed to be losing their heads, he alone appeared to retain a sense of proportion, a lone statesman amid the chaos.
At the anthems before the semi-final, in a moment of telenovela mawkishness, David Luiz and Julio Cesar, apparently struggling to quench the tears, held up a number 10 Neymar shirt. There was no minute’s silence to mark the passing of either Alfredo Di Stéfano or the two people killed in Belo Horizonte the previous week by the collapse of an overpass built as part of a World Cup infrastructure project. Nothing, it seems, could be allowed to distract this Brazil from its sentimental solipsism. Nothing, that is, apart from the ruthlessness of a Germany team that couldn’t believe its luck.
Scolari had made a show of being relaxed in the pre-match press-conference as though to convince Brazilians they could still prevail without Neymar. The forward’s absence haunted the game, the thousands of Brazil fans wearing Neymar masks only emphasising the fact that he wasn’t on the pitch. Brazil’s players arrived wearing baseball caps bearing the slogan “Força Neymar”, as did Scolari, which had the unfortunate effect of making him look like an ageing relative on a stag do.
On the pitch, Neymar was replaced, surprisingly, not by Willian but by Bernard, the diminutive local hero who had helped Atletico Mineiro to the Libertadores title and Brazil to victory over Uruguay in the Confederations Cup semi-final in the Minerão in 2013. It didn’t matter. By far the bigger absentee was Thiago Silva. Without his calming presence, David Luiz looked, as Ronaldo said in his television punditry, “infantile”. Only two teams had previously gone in 5-0 down a half-time in a World Cup match, Zaire and Haiti.
Jogi Löw had described Brazil’s approach in previous rounds as “brutal”. For all Brazil bleated about the supposed “cowardice” of the Juan Camilo Zúñiga challenge, they committed more fouls than anyone else in the tournament and were fairly clearly guilty of tactical fouling. The need to put right the disappointment of 1950 and defeat at the last to Uruguay legitimised an approach of by-any-means-necessary: the desperation for Brazil to succeed was clear in the astonishing scenes of the team bus on its way to the stadium, crawling between rows of fans, arms outstretched to take photographs, looking like nothing so much as yellow-clad pilgrims desperately reaching out to touch a passing icon. Theirs, it turned out, was a false god - even if that bus did bear the ambiguously prophetic message, “Brace yourself, the sixth is coming.” And, as it turned out, the seventh.
That yearning for victory is coupled to an uncomfortable hostility towards opponents. The witch hunt of Zúñiga for what was a clumsy but hardly outrageous challenge on Neymar had suggested a nation on the edge, and that sense of opponents less as necessary adversaries than as villains standing disgracefully in Brazil’s way was reflected in the booing even of footage shown on the big screens of the Germany team arriving at the stadium, and far louder jeers when they actually took the field.
Not that Germany were ever likely to be intimidated. They have played the hosts 12 times in major tournaments, winning on 10 occasions. The role of party-pooper is one they relish. There was never a sense that Germany might quail as Colombia had in the quarter-final; rather they at last produced the definitive performance they had been threatening for eight years.
Given that, given the magnitude of the win, given the hysteria of the night, Toni Kroos’s response was almost laughably measured. I’m sure he wasn’t, but it felt almost as though he were satirising the stereotype of the unemotional, mechanical German. “Our clear goal when we came here was to become world champions, and no one is a world champion after the semi-finals,” he said.
This, the message seemed to be, was all part of the process put in place in 2000 when all clubs in the top two divisions in Germany were mandated to build academies, while 121 national centres were established to help 10-17 year olds with technical practice. “We were forced to organise everything anew,” said Horst Hrubesch, once a powerful centre-forward and now the national Under-21 coach. “We hoped that it could get better with training focusing on technical skills in addition to the training in the clubs. It worked out well. We all - associations, clubs and regional associations - now reap the fruits of the seed we sowed in 2000.”
That provided the groundwork, but as Raphael Honigstein has pointed out German football also benefited from two factors outside its control. Citizenship laws were relaxed, the result of which has been the emergence of a number of top-class German-qualified players from immigrant backgrounds.
German football was also aided by the economic dip of the early part of the last decade. By 2002, 60% of all players in the Bundesliga were foreign but then the Kirch TV conglomerate, which had lain behind the nineties boom, collapsed. That forced clubs to sell off their expensive foreign stars and give youth its chance. Last season, although the German economy had recovered, more than half of the players in the Bundesliga were qualified for Germany: young talent is given a chance and case-hardened early.
Hosting the World Cup in 2006 was another major step in Germany’s evolution. Under Jürgen Klinsmann, with Löw as his assistant, Germany played bright, attractive football in a bright, attractive tournament that many believe helped change the perception of the nation. There were goals, there was fun, there was none of the uncompromising muscularity of old and, perhaps most intriguingly of all, there was no victory. Germany were such perfect hosts that they exited in the semi-final, leaving their guests to contest the prize.
As David Winner observed, Germany had abandoned their traditional role in the narrative. They were supposed to be the remorseless villains who destroyed the dreams of beautiful teams - Hungary in 1954, the Netherlands in 1974, France in 1982. Suddenly they weren’t Darth Vader any more; they’d become one of the beautiful but doomed. The pretty football continued, and so did the failure. A final at Euro 2008, a semi-final in 2010, a semi-final at Euro 2012. Had the pretty football come at the expense of a loss of edge?
“When we won the Under-21 European Championship in Sweden in 2009 we had a lot of players with a great mentality like Manuel Neuer, Sami Khedira or Jerome Boateng,” said Hrubesch. “The boys must gain the experience of winning at youth level so that they become hungry for success. Our current generation in the national team has many players who have won the Under-21s, Under-19s or Under-17s European Championships and also trophies at club level. I’m sure that they will bring this experience onto the pitch. They know what’s necessary to win a tournament.”
The reference to 2009 is telling. Five of that side started the final, and it would have been six had Sami Khedira not injured himself in the warm-up. Football is a notoriously difficult sport to plan, but the Germans seem to have managed it.
The Brazilian anthropologist Carlos Fausto, who works at the Museu Nacional in Rio, spent the World Cup with the isolated Kuikuro indigenous group deep in Brazil’s Xingu region, very far from anywhere. The Kuikuro watched the whole World Cup. “Yesterday we saw all four matches,” Carlos emailed me early in the tournament. “They love football. Of course, this is mostly true for the youngsters, especially men. But Chief Afukaká, who is about 65, is a great football fan.”
The day after Brazil’s 7-1 defeat, Carlos wrote again to tell me how the Kuikuro had taken it. I quote his email in full below, with only minor edits to improve the English.
“From the beginning, the Kuikuro were not happy with Felipão’s choice of team. Bernard is too small, they said, it’s not going to work. After the third goal some people left and stopped watching the match. Some 20-year-old girls went to the football field in the centre of the village ring and started playing. People were not crying or too shocked. The Kuikuro do not react too emotionally to things like this. But in the early evening a new event drew the attention of the whole village. A 35-year-old man disappeared and was found walking some 5km from the village. The shamans diagnosed him as a victim of a spirit attack. They have spent the whole night treating him. Again, we were all miles away from the World Cup. This morning, however, many people were discussing the match and now we are watching Argentina-Holland. People are also discussing which team they should support now. Since the Kuikuro Football Club’s shirt is identical to the Argentinian one, some people are pro-Argentina, whereas others are pro-Holland. But most say they don’t care about the World Cup anymore. For them, the match against Germany proved that Neymar was our sole kindoto or ojotse, which are their words for the best wrestlers here. (Wrestling is an important element of ritual life in the Upper Xingu.). They said all other Brazilian players were talokito (of no value).”
It’s an early start, but for once getting up at 6am is bearable. This is the first, and very possibly the only day of my life when I can wake up with a big smile and say that I am going to the World Cup final.
Before that, though, I have to head in the opposite direction; not north, to the Maracanã stadium, but south to Copacabana, gathering point for the world’s media and for most of the fans, too. I’m meeting a crew outside the BBC offices to nip over to the beach and record a piece that will go out on the World TV’s version of Football Focus – a maximum of 1 minutes 30 rounding up the tournament. I wrote the script the night before, and rehearse it on the underground as I make my way over. It’s a bit early and pre-coffee to be able to remember the piece in front of camera, but by this stage of the competition I’m well into the groove and manage to get it right at the second or third attempt.
That done, the next stop is to wander into the Fifa studios – those ones that most of the broadcasters have been using with the breathtaking view of Copacabana beach and Sugar Loaf mountain in the background. This morning I’m doing a show for SBS from Australia. The presenter Les Murray and the former player and analyst Craig Foster are there as always, and this time the commentator Martin Tyler is also in the studio for The World Game show, which will go out live at peak time in the Australian evening.
This is very different from the BBC TV stuff I’ve been doing at their studio a floor above. With Match of the Day the time restrictions are far greater (“1 minute 15 on this next chat”) – over the course of the past few weeks I’ve found that the best way to deal with this is to think like a politician in campaign mode; have a simple point to make, and get it across clearly and succinctly. On the SBS show, though, things are more relaxed, there is more time to chat and see where it takes us. This show is a big moment for Les Murray. He was born in Hungary with the name László Ürge and emigrated to Australia as a child after the 1956 uprising. His life has been the promotion of football in his adopted country – often an uphill struggle, but a battle that he seems to have won. This is his last World Cup, made all the more poignant for him by the fact that he is a South America nut who is married to a Brazilian. At the end of the show I manage to get in a lovely phrase from the land of his birth which I picked up from his autobiography: “Les, mate, may all your fences be made of sausages.”
And then, with a quick pause to wash off the make up, it’s back across the road to the BBC offices, where I have to record the voice track for a piece on Lionel Messi and Argentina which will go out before the final as part of the TV coverage. I’ve done a few of these pieces during the World Cup. It is a process probably hampered by the fact that I’m not very good at ‘thinking’ pictures – it might be just as well that I never get to see the images, since the producer is over the other side of town at the International Broadcasting Centre. The hard work is all his – he chooses the pictures, and via e-mail and phone calls the pair of us grope towards a script that fits, which in this case we have agreed the night before. I laid down the voice track and then wandered off happily in search of coffee – but before getting very far the phone goes. The producer thinks my intonation on a couple of moments could have been better. Can I go back and re-record? Why not? There will only be millions of people watching, so we might as well try to get it right.
Once he’s happy I can make a unilateral declaration of breakfast and then embark on one of my favourite journeys – getting the underground to the Maracanã. There are still more than five hours to go before kick off but the big game feel is unmistakable. Everyone on the tube is either going to the match or wishing they were. Argentina fans rehearse their songs, locals heading to the northern suburbs crane their necks to take in the view as we head above ground on the section of track leading up to the stadium. And coming out of the tube, you are in that bubble where nothing else seems to matter. One young man sits on the station forecourt with a banner proclaiming that he would swap his kidney for a match ticket. One hopes he was not successful, even if he was a Germany fan.
In the two hours before kick off I sit in the BBC Radio 5 commentary position for a couple of slots. During the first one we’re trying to talk over the din of the closing ceremony. Chris Waddle seems a bit baffled by the phenomenon of Shakira, and asks me how to spell the name of the Colombian songstress. First half hour of radio done, I retreat from the din and find some peace in the outer ring of the stadium, where the fans are milling around, buying refreshments and looking for their seat block.
I run into Ken Early of the Irish Times. I’ve done radio with him for years, but had never actually met him until a brief encounter earlier in the tournament in the stadium at the North Eastern city of Fortaleza. Lanky and red-headed, Ken is always going to stand out in Brazil. He tells me he’s been robbed three times during the World Cup; but, in that enchanting way that Brazil has, he doesn’t seem to hold it against the country. “Brazil,” he says, “has a way of separating an idiot from his possessions.”
Soon, a crowd of his compatriots gather around him. They are not happy. The wifi in the media tribune is down, and none of them are able to work. It’s provided by ‘Oi,’ a local telephone company. “Weakness through Oi,” quips an Irish journalist.
Back down into the Radio 5 position. There’s no more closing ceremony, only the focus on the game to come. A few reflections on the team news and then I’m off to find my seat, away to the left, in among some excited Argentinian journalists. They are edgy – movement in the row in front leaves them furious. “This is the World Cup Final, for fuck’s sake!” They are also quick to spot that the German number 23, Kramer, is on the pitch. He had not been included in the original starting line up, so who is missing? Everyone around chips in, trying to work out the last minute German absentee. “It’s Khedira! Khedira’s not playing.”
A hawk eye has been needed to spot it. The Maracanã is not the most impressive of the new or rebuilt 2014 stadiums. The angle of the slope in the ground is still very narrow, meaning that, high up, we are some way from the pitch. But it is a perfect location from which to view those first half Argentinian chances; Higuaín, clean through, screwing horribly wide – then apparently making amends with a well-drilled finish, and spending so long celebrating that he has not noticed the linesman’s flag.
Up in the gods, surrounded by strangers, it’s relaxing just to be able to sit back and watch the drama unfold. With my South American hat on, I would favour an Argentina win, but as the tide turns towards the Germans I realise that there is one outcome that I really don’t want to see – 0-0 and penalties. So I enjoy Mario Götze’s late goal, even if it took place right at the far end of the field. We are much closer to Lionel Messi’s last-minute free-kick. “It’s too far out to beat Neuer from there,” I want to scream at him. “Whip it in for Garay to attack.” But Messi goes for the shot, and straining too much for effect, sends the ball high into the stands. And that is the end of the 2014 World Cup.
But not for me. Next step is to wander to my right and climb up to the BBC TV platform, where once the presentation is over I’m doing a quick round up with Jason Mohammad. He tells me his likely questions, and I think of simple points I want to get across; that the German triumph ranks with any previous World Cup win, that it comes as the conclusion to an admirable process, and that for Brazil it’s been a tournament turned upside down – they went into the World Cup confident of what would happen on the field, and worried about being shown up by organisational chaos. In fact, reality has been closer to the opposite.
No, it’s time to haul myself away from the adrenalin of a stadium still reacting to the result, and take the lift back down to the Media Centre. The first piece to be written is for ESPN on Argentina’s lamentation – if they can’t win the World Cup now, then when? Ken Early comes across to record a quick interview for his podcast, and then it’s into the second piece, for CBC in Canada. They want something quick on the winners, so I flesh out those thoughts on the Germans that I’d shared with Jason Mohammad.
As the Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella finished his post-final press conference, he was eventually asked to describe how it felt. The 59-year-old chuckled, offering some humour in an otherwise disappointing night.
This, after all, was not one of those typically cliched journalist questions that expects a sportsperson to reflect on the emotions of an intense event immediately after it finishes. It was said in a very particular way: “Decime que se siente.” Those four words, of course, followed “Brasil” in the opening line of the most memorable piece of music from the entire World Cup.
Fifa may have attempted to foist sanitised modern megastars like Pitbull and Shakira on us, but the true song of the tournament was an improvisation of a piece of classic rock, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 single “Bad Moon Rising”.
Argentinian fans have for a long time modified its words to make it a terrace chant, but this was taking it to a new level. It pointedly mocked the host nation, by asking Brazilians how it felt to have the team that had afflicted most defeats upon them rampaging through the pitches of their country, referencing 1990 and how Diego Maradona is better than Pelé along the way.
The chant could be heard raucously being sung around every Argentina game:
Brasil, decime que se siente (Brazil, tell me how it feels)
Tener en casa a tu papa (to have your Papa [someone who regularly defeats you, in football terms] in your home)
Seguro que aunque pasen los años (I’m sure, as the years go by)
Nunca lo vamos a olvidar (We’ll never forget)
Que el Diego te gambeteo (When Diego went through you)
El Cani te vacuno (When El Cani [Caniggia] vaccinated you [scored])
Estas llorando desde Italia hasta hoy (You’re still crying from Italy)
A Messi lo vas a ver (With Messi, you’re going to see)
La copa nos va a traer (The cup, he’s going to bring it home)
Maradona es mas grande que Pelé (Maradona is greater than Pelé)
Ultimately nobody saw the image of Messi taking home the cup but few will forget the sounds leading up to Germany taking it away.
I had a couple of things to do for Radio 5 – who by now have dismantled their set up in the commentary position, so I’ll have to do them on my laptop on the BBC’s internal version of Skype. But there’s a problem – perhaps with the quality of the internet connection or maybe back in Salford. They can hear me loud and clear. I can’t hear them. We try to improvise a solution, with them phoning me on the mobile. The line is so bad that it’s still very difficult for me to hear, and so I keep both radio hits brief, and then abort.
One more piece to write – for the BBC Brasil website. I should really be doing this in Portuguese – I used to write a twice weekly column for a local paper in the language more than 15 years ago. But I’m pushed for time and a bit lazy – and anyway I don’t really enjoy writing in a second language – so I do it in English and they translate. This one rounds up the tournament and rounds on David Luiz – still considered a national hero despite giving the worst and most selfish semi-final performance imaginable. It is well worth doing, sparking off some local debate, and I’m informed later that it was read by almost 300,000 people.
The Media Centre is still buzzing, but I need to haul myself away if I’m to catch the underground home before the 11pm Sunday shutdown. It’s now some three and a half hours after the presentation ceremony. There are just a few fans left around the ground, and fewer still on the underground. There is a melancholic, end of party feel – until I arrive home and discover that my girlfriend and one of my stepdaughters have raided my wardrobe for red and black shirts so they could spend the afternoon cheering for Germany – better than supporting Brazil, they conclude, because it’s easier on the nerves. They have painted their faces in the colours of the German flag and, I suspect, have been provoking a group of Argentinians who gathered to watch the game in a restaurant across the road from my flat.
A quick bite to eat, then I record an interview for the Breakfast show on BBC Scotland, before lying down for half an hour. Just as well that I set the alarm on my mobile phone, or I’d have slept straight through. But I have to haul myself away to Copacabana one last time, where in a beachside bar BBC World Service Radio are broadcasting their final World Cup conclusions. I’ve agreed to come along for the last hour, between 1 and 2 in the morning, and I’m bitterly regretting it as I climb into a taxi – there’s a mountain of accumulated sleep which will have to be caught up sometime. But as soon as we get into Copacabana, my feelings change. Here, the World Cup is still alive and kicking. The beachfront is full of people parading up and down, faces from all over the planet, the global village that has made this neighbourhood so fascinating over the past few weeks – and none of them want to go to bed, and then wake up to find that the competition now belongs to history. Everyone is trying to prolong the experience – especially the thousands of Argentinians, still belting out their favourite chants as if they had won the title.
Some of them organise a little kick about. Others are busy trying to rip away part of the wall of the Fan Fest so they can carry it home as a souvenir. I envy them their carefree capacity to enjoy the occasion. With long drives ahead of them, they are more than welcome to envy me the money that I’ve earned working in the World Cup.
And that’s why I have to drag myself away when the broadcast ends. Part of me would love to take last orders as we all drink in the bar of World Cup atmosphere, and then just collapse on a bench as some of the Argentinians are starting to do. But my little notebook informs me that I have to be ready in a few hours to round up the tournament for Irish radio, so I go back home for a couple of hours’ sleep. It’s not quite all over yet.
The World Cup never ends at the final whistle or even with the lifting of the Cup. There is always something else, a final act that brings down the curtain. This time, in Argentina at least, it came 18 days after the final with the death of the president of the Argentinian football federation (AFA), Julio Grondona.
Don Julio’s coffin was carried through the narrow streets of the Avellaneda necropolis by six men including his two sons and one of his grandsons. Hundreds were gathered alongside the vaults, an assortment of young and old, men and women, rich and poor. Outside the cemetery’s main entrance, TV crews stood to attention, but inside, at the family’s request, there were no cameras or cell phones. Many were weeping, praying, and now and again someone would wail louder: “He was ours; from Avellaneda,” one old man screamed out. Don Julio’s younger son, Humberto, visibly pained, struggled to hold the coffin high. A priest clad in white led the procession, chanting; most of the crowd joined in. As they marched slowly through a path cleared by security, someone spotted a photographer who had climbed up to the roof of a nearby vault. “Get him down! Get him down!” men shouted in anger, pointing upwards. With the speed and efficiency with which a terrace brawl might be stopped, bouncers sprang out from amid the crowd and clambered towards the photographer. “Don’t hit him! Not here!” someone shouted. “Get his camera!” offered others and one old man, leaning on a walking stick, said, “Take the film!” while a younger attendee explained, “They don’t use film anymore. You have to take the camera”. In the midst of it all, Don Julio’s coffin was carried towards its final resting place.
Among the men of football gathered for the sombre occasion, queuing up to step inside the vault and pay their last respects, were Jorge Burruchaga, who scored the winner in the 1986 World Cup final and was subsequently manager of Independiente, of which Grondona was president between 1976 and 1979; Carlos Bilardo, manager of Argentina in 1986 and 1990 and, until last June, contractually AFA’s director of football; Alejandro Sabella, manager of Argentina in 2014, who had refused to sign a new contract on the morning of Don Julio’s death. Cesar Menotti, the only other living manager to have taken Argentina to a World Cup final, was not there. He had an acrimonious relationship with Grondona but at the hour of his death had spoken respectfully of how able the old man was; and how, ultimately, he understood football well.
That much is true. Grondona had been at the helm of AFA for over 35 years and, as a close ally of João Havelange first, and Sepp Blatter later, had held a powerful seat in Fifa’s hierarchy, as vice-president and treasurer, shaping the organisation and helping it become what it is today. He was born in Avellaneda in 1933, at a time when electoral fraud was so rife that even the dead voted. Grondona shared a room overlooking the cemetery with his 10 siblings, Ezequiel Fernández Moores wrote, and grew up in the area so associated with the tango image of knife-juggling gangsters that the saying went, “If you throw a potato up in the air, when it comes down again it’s peeled.”
He played football in the lower divisions, but mostly worked in his father’s ironmongery and was still in his twenties when he bought a plot of land and founded Arsenal de Sarandí Football Club, beginning what would become a lifelong involvement with the governance of the world’s favourite game. When he took over as president of AFA in 1979, he was an outsider, promoted largely because of his ability to negotiate a contract extension with Menotti, who had just won the 1978 World Cup.
“When I took office all these cabinets were empty,” he boasted to me once, pointing to the many trophies adorning his room at AFA’s headquarters. I first met him in France, in 1998, when he stepped out of his hotel in slippers and a cashmere cardigan to face an angry crowd complaining about the lack of tickets for Argentina’s matches after the group stages. I last spoke to him on the day he died, with several high-ranking names involved in further fiascos over tickets during the 2014 World Cup. The haphazard way in which tickets are allocated and distributed as the nation progresses through the tournament is but one of the many questionable practices that have become common in world football.
On the eve of the final, the Copacabana Palace hotel had become a hotspot of intrigue and scandal. Between English impresarios allegedly sneaking out of kitchen doors to avoid the Brazilian police and an enhanced security cordon of armed officers protecting the VIP guests, the friends and family of players and other football men were awaiting tickets for the final. Among them was Titi Fernández, an Argentinian journalist whose daughter, a journalist herself, had died in a car accident earlier during the tournament. Titi had decided to return to Brazil with his wife for the final, in spite of the tragic events which had curtailed his working trip. Witnesses say Mrs Fernández lost patience as, well after 1am, there was no sign of tickets. “Why did you make me come here?” she is said to have shouted at him in front everybody.
For Argentina it was a World Cup haunted by death. During the early hours of July 9, on the morning of Argentina’s match against the Netherlands in São Paolo, an Argentinian journalist witnessed an armed robbery in the street, the robbers stealing a car and speeding into the night. A few blocks further on, the car crashed into a taxi in which the passenger, another Argentinian journalist, Jorge ‘El Topo’ López, was killed. In between the violent and sudden deaths of Titi Fernández’s daughter and El Topo, Alfredo Di Stéfano, the first Argentina player to be globally acknowledged as a great, passed away in Madrid.
Grondona’s death was about more than an individual, though: it was the death of the institution of football as we know it. Football itself rarely seemed to trouble him. “Worried?” he replied once when I asked him about a particularly poor run of results. “I worry if a family member is ill.” The death of his mother aged 102, closely followed by the death of his wife, visibly upset him. He also buried a longstanding aide who liked to boast he had been “hired to carry the suitcases” – a euphemism for money – with whom he had fallen out following the 2010 World Cup. As he got older, Grondona appeared increasingly frail and lonely, having spent decades walking in his slow, steady, heavy-footed way without stepping aside for anyone. Dictatorships and left-wing populism, hyper-inflation and currency collapses, organised hooligans or multi-media empires listed on the stock exchange, it made no difference to him. Able to negotiate with all and rule by decree, his was a personalised leadership which left no room for others.
Whatever power is, he had it. “I’m the vice-president of the world,” he liked to pronounce. His most recent stunt saw him forge alliances with political players, implementing a controversial change of the assignment of television rights in a quest to secure a cut of the proceeds of online gambling. With his body still warm, the offices of AFA were searched by fiscal investigators into the distribution of TV rights income. The issue of his succession, which has worried many for years, was not one he considered relevant: “Succession? Why are you talking to me about this? When I’m gone, all this will be finished.”
For 35 years Don Julio appeared to be the only constant in an ever-changing society. Messi flew in to pay his respects, perhaps in honour of the fact that Julio spotted him as a youth and insisted he be played in an international match so as to secure his services before Spain called him up; perhaps in acknowledgment that for almost 10 years the underlying policy of Argentina’s national squad has been to appoint managers who allow Messi to feel comfortable.
Whether by appointing referees or employing the right talent, it could be argued that, from some perspectives, Grondona’s reign, both domestically and internationally, has been a success. What happens next, without his imposing physical presence and his way of speaking as if delivering a script from an Italian movie of the 1950s, is anyone’s guess. But his legacy is profound: I once asked him if he had ever dreamt, when starting to do deals on behalf of world football with the likes of Coca-Cola, that it would become as popular as it has; he opened his eyes wide and said, “Not in a million years.” Another time he was asked on a radio show how he would like to be remembered, “Why should I care?” he replied. “It’s not as if I’m going to be around to know about it.”