By: Trevor Kew
Though many of us have played at it on a Sunday morning in the park, very few soccer players in this world have ever felt the weight of a nation on our shoulders. What must it be like to do all those things we all do (some of us very poorly) – dribbling, shooting, passing, tackling, (diving?) – with a spider-cam metres above your head, analyzing your every kick, swear word or scratch of the groin?
These players, you might argue, deal with pressure on a weekly basis playing for their club sides in the best leagues in the world and, to be sure, this must help somewhat. Some would also assert that Champions League soccer and even top European and South American leagues are contested at a higher standard than World Cup matches, due to the fact that the teams play together all year long and almost exclusively possess international-calibre players. But it cannot be denied that the World Cup is unique in terms of the number of people who watch it, the importance they place on winning and, therefore, the amount of pressure on the individuals who actually walk out of the tunnel, onto the pitch and under the microscope of the world.
What must it be like to hold the weight of a nation on your shoulders? Well, it’s not the same for every team. For a small country like New Zealand, where soccer is still less popular than rugby, cricket and sheep, there was obviously no pressure to win the tournament but the players, knowing that any result would bring more attention (and possibly, more money) to their sport, must have felt pressure to defy the critics. They more than did so, earning three draws, including one with 2006 World Cup champions Italy, which they might have won if not for typical Italian theatrics in the penalty area. I’m also quite sure that Slovakians will never forget their team’s 3-2 defeat of those same fizzling Italians, especially as it heralded their team’s progression to the knockout stages in their first-ever World Cup tournament (where they were promptly but not embarrassingly dumped by the Dutch). North Korea is the one exception among World Cup minnows, perhaps, as (apparently) their defeats were scarcely (or “adjusted”) reported on (or perhaps “adjusted”) back in the land of the Dear Leader. One might not be surprised to see satellite images of victory parades through Pyongyang in the near future, or next year, or whenever Mr. Kim feels like it.
Other teams come into the tournament knowing that nothing less than hoisting the golden statue will suffice for their countrymen back home. Brazil, Argentina, Portugal, England and especially Italy and France have already skulked home in shame due to defensive inadequacies, coaching insanity or an inability to put la ballon into the le back of the net. Ze Germans, on the other hand and as usual, reminded everyone that it is foolish to ever, ever count them out, at least until they met up with Spain last night, who, like Holland, have finally managed to allay their tendency to spontaneously combust in big tournaments despite their ridiculous wealth of talent.
So what has been the difference between those who have survived and those who have fallen? It has been a combination of team cohesion and the ability of star players to take a match by the scruff of the neck and make it their own. Argentina showed bags of attacking flair up front, but there was no one there to marshal the back line, and in truth at times it looked like the attacking players were more interested in the Golden Boot than the World Cup. England either contained no leaders or too many, depending on whom you talk to, but either way they simply did not get it right in time. Rooney only made tackles in the Nike advert and the entire defence were on safari against the German counterattack. Cristiano Ronaldo began the tournament well, at least as a playmaker, and then sulked through a disappointing Round of 16 match against Spain.
But the success stories have been equally, if not more striking than the failures. Ageless Miroslav Klose lifted Germany all the way to the semi-finals with his sharp finishing and knack of being in the right place at the right moment. Without David Villa, the Spanish would have been sunning on the Costa del Sol after the group stages, especially given the phantom-esque play of Fernando Torres, and Arjen Robben and Wesley Schneider have led the Dutch past tough challenges from Brazil and Uruguay.
But for me, the player of the tournament, though he won’t win it or the Golden Boot, has been Diego Forlan. Almost single-handedly, he lifted his small South American nation up after a mundane draw with France and silenced the noisy home crowd at Loftus Versfeld. In the following four games, he scored or had a hand in virtually every goal Uruguay put away. But even more, he lifted the play of everyone around him, from the questionable midfield to the dodgy substitute left defender who played (and got skinned numerous times by Arjen Robben) against Holland.
As I sat in Cape Town’s stunning Green Point stadium, watching Forlan’s diminutive frame limp to the touchline with less than twenty minutes left in his country’s 2010 World Cup, I wondered how (and if) his contribution to the tournament would be remembered. As a villain, perhaps, by Africans and Africa romantics (though not nearly to the extent of Luis Suarez, who’s illicit goalkeeping antics against Ghana have been dubbed “Hand of the Devil” here in the newspaper, horns ‘n’ all!). As a hero, no doubt, in the tiny country tucked between Argentina and Brazil. By me, a neutral, he will be remembered as a player who took the weight of a nation on his shoulders and lifted it up higher than its people, or the rest of the world, could have imagined possible.