Tuesday, May 30, 2017

An Everyday World Cup Final

By Trevor Kew

The World Cup Final just doesn’t come along every day. In fact, other than the Olympics, it is difficult to think of a major sporting event that does occur less frequently.

The Super Bowl lumbers by each winter, the Stanley Cup laces up its skates (some would say inexplicably) well into spring, Wimbledon serves strawberries each summer (sometimes underneath umbrellas), and the World Series hits the bases in mid-autumn.

All of these seasonal classics deservedly draw their own legions of nervous fans, eager to see their team or player lift the ultimate prize of their sport. And I’m no snob when it comes to sports—to each their own, I say. Every sport can provide gripping, edge-of-your-seat thrills (remember how we even started watching curling during the Winter Olympics?!) and every sport is also capable of causing snores, swear words or slippers thrown at the television.

But there seems to me to be a belief with these yearly contests (and often, as I can attest as a lifelong fan of the Vancouver Canucks, an extremely deluded belief) that hey, there’s always next year, right? Pick yourself up and dust yourself off and back in the saddle.

Apologies to Shakira, but soccer doesn’t work that way; at least not when it comes to the World Cup. “Fall to the ground, put your head in your hands and let the man-tears flow” would probably be more like it. Because while many players do participate in more than one tournament in their lives, there is definitely the feeling that every World Cup match may be your, and your country’s, last chance.
Perhaps nowhere has this ever been more palpable than this year’s World Cup final. As I watched the Oranje line up alongside their Spanish adversaries in Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg, I thought about the multiple layers of pressure on both sets of players: the fans, the media, the coaches and their own pride as sportsmen.
So many bragging rights were on offer. The first to survive vuvuzelas, swerving Jabulani free kicks and the glare off those dodgy plastic supporters’ helmets. The first to hoist a World Cup on African soil. And of course, biggest of all, the first representatives from either nation to lay claim to soccer’s gleaming golden prize.

The Dutch and the Spanish, despite both having won the European Championship before, were looking to exorcise slightly different demons on Sunday. Holland had, of course, been to the Final before: twice, losing to West Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978. They are frequently referred to as the best team never to win the World Cup. The Spanish, on the other hand, had been regarded as perennial underachievers, regularly self-destructing due to internal squabbles, inflated egos and, some say, a lack of integration of players from areas like Basque and Catalonia.

There were other intriguing subplots: contrasting styles, hot girlfriends in the crowd, Sneijder vs. David Villa for the Golden Boot. But what struck me as the 2010 World Cup Final kicked off at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 11th, a day that I and soccer fans all over the world had been imagining for months if not years, was that ultimately, it was still a soccer match. Despite the “Waka Waka” performance and the fireworks and the dignitaries (although Mandela’s appearance and the crowd’s reaction was something I will always remember) it was still just twenty-two guys kicking a ball for ninety minutes (well, one hundred-and-twenty plus stoppage time, obviously) and yelling a lot at the referee.

As a neutral, I had none of the nerves that supporters of the Netherlands or Spain must have felt jangling through their souls as the game progressed. Selfishly, however, I felt anxious that this World Cup Final had to be the match of all soccer matches because I was there. Just like those players, this was probably my only chance.

The game, as you all saw, wasn’t a great final. Chances were few and far between and the 90,000 in the stadium and untold millions (or billions) watching at home were forced to wait 116 minutes until Iniesta finally fired Spain to a 1-0 victory. But it wasn’t a terrible final either—just a tightly-defended, feisty, cautious, nervy one.
As I watched Iker Casillas fall to his knees and weep with joy and Arjen Robben sink to his knees and dissolve into a puddle of inconsolable grief, I was reminded of why I love the World Cup so much.

It is because soccer is not only about the goals that are scored, it is about harsh reality: sometimes we do only get one chance in life and probably more often than not, we stuff it up (think of Ghana’s last-minute penalty miss…). It is about good fortune and bad luck, that thin line between success and failure, as slender as one slip of a defender’s foot or a single brilliant flick of a forward’s toe.

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