/ 29 June 2018

Half the game is lost off the pitch

Thomas Mueller despairs after Germany’s defeat by Korea Republic.
Thomas Mueller despairs after Germany’s defeat by Korea Republic.

The champions’ curse is officially a thing. Of the past five World Cup champions, four have fallen at the group stages in the next tournament. Who knows what the rational explanation for this uncanny toll might be.

The problem may be a waning stock of desire, or the fact that ageing heroes command too much nostalgic loyalty from their coaches — especially if the coach himself is also still basking in the glow of the last campaign.

Great things fall apart — especially great things as complex as a world-beating football team. The only mystery is how reliably we all fail to see it coming. If you’d told me two weeks ago that Germany would get klapped by both Mexico and South Korea and finish stone last in their group, I’d have thought you were an idiot.

This is precisely why the sports betting business will never go out of business. We all think we know football but nobody really does except the bookies, steeped as they are in the raw actuarial soup of probabilities. The bastards pocketed billions in profits on Wednesday night.

One thing’s for sure: the mighty German youth system will survive, and the depth and progressiveness of the country’s football culture will yield another golden generation before long. There is so much stability, imagination and money pumping through the fabric of the German game that there is no danger of systemic decline.

And in a few days or weeks, the Mannschaft, the fans and media will all get over the trauma. The beauty of the game itself, the inexhaustible pleasure of playing it and watching it, will creep back into their lives.

Recovery won’t be as quick for the people of Argentina, even if their heroes do go far in this tournament. Like South Africa, Argentina is in a dark place as a country, racked with doubt and poverty and gloom. The darkness is visible in the exploits of the national side, as Jorge Valdano observed in a powerful article in The Guardian this week.

Valdano is without doubt the best writer ever to have scored in a World Cup final (he scored four goals in total for Argentina at Mexico 1986). And he’s famous for his brutal description of the 2007 Champions League semifinal between Rafael Benítez’s Liverpool and José Mourinho’s Chelsea: the contest, he said, resembled “a shit hanging from a stick”.

He’s a leftie, a purist and a bit of a Don Quixote, tilting at the glittering windmills of the globalised game.

Writing on the eve of the Argentinian win over Nigeria, Valdano skewered the aggression and crude machismo that has come to dominate his country’s football, both on the pitch and in the stands.

He also spotted the complicity of the national media in the debasement of Argentina’s legacy of “skill, quality, fantasy, cunning, precision”.

Valdano condemned “the medio-crity of the debate, where a base crassness more suited to bad actors than good journalists bastardises the play and denigrates players. This infernal racket conditions everything, a deafening noise that surrounds everything and made the Argentinian people believe that, if Messi does not win a World Cup, he will never be Maradona; that made Messi himself believe it.”

Messi can fight his own battles, of course. And there were glimmers of resurgence in the excruciatingly tight victory over Nigeria. But Valdano is dead right that a toxic or delusional national conversation about football can do serious damage on the pitch.

For decades, the stubborn national myths surrounding the “traditional virtues” of the English game served only to hold England back. Here in South Africa, we have the opposite problem: taking a sadistic delight in the deficiencies of our players.

You can tell proper football fans by seeing what they do when their teams lose bravely, or win in vain. Do they rush off to beat the traffic on their way home? Or do they stay and acknowledge a doomed effort?

Witness the manic celebrations of the Korean fans after the victory over Germany, notwithstanding South Korea’s failure to advance from the group.

I couldn’t help comparing their bittersweet devotion to the graceless non-tribute offered by Bafana fans on the day South Africa beat France in Bloemfontein in 2010.

Bafana were knocked out despite their tremendous victory — and the home crowd at the Free State Stadium began to mooch home even before the final whistle had sounded. The devastated players had to salute near-empty stands.

Maybe we will only get back to the World Cup once we learn to love the game properly.