Each World Cup unfolds as its own tale. This edition had a storybook finish, but the real climax came in the semifinal.
The World Cup is different than any other sporting event, and not just because the whole planet is watching and caring together, though that’s certainly a big part of it.
Taking place over more than a full month, nearly twice as long as an Olympic Games but with the focus on a single sport that incites fierce passions, it unfolds more like a novel than a simple athletic championship. As with literature, the setting is important—that it was held in South Africa in 2010 was more important than anything that took place on the pitch—and the tournament is played out in chapters. Groups have their own subplots, the knockout games build towards a climax, and then on the final Sunday, the loose ends are all tied up in a bow.
World Cups are not equally great. They’re not equally compelling.
But there’s something distinctive about each of them that fixes in memory, whether it’s just a fleeting moment or a single personality—remember Roger Milla in 1990?—or it’s the full Hollywood blockbuster finish that was the home team winning it all in 1998, and the streets of Paris filling as though it were the Liberation redux.
This time around you knew there was going to be one heck of a story simply because the World Cup was in Brazil, point of origin of so much of its glorious history, the place that, if it didn’t invent the game, at very least reinvented its aesthetics and exploded its possibilities. The host country was also a political and economic powder keg, with plenty of seething resentment about the cost and illogic of staging the FIFA circus in a society facing all kinds of other challenges.
That last part pretty much disappeared from the narrative by the time of the opening match, predictably, because big sporting events once they get started tend to temporarily anaesthetize dissent and divert the world’s attention elsewhere, allowing the cops and soldiers to get down to business minus scrutiny. Plus, the opening round was breathtaking, with all of those goals, all of those underdog stories and all of those emerging stars, as wide open and fun as any in recent memory, easily the best since ’98. You could fall in love with a different player, a different team nearly every day—Chile, Costa Rica, the Americans (yep… the U.S.), James Rodriguez and Lionel Messi.
Things tightened up and became more predictable once the pretenders were dispatched and the matches switched to sudden death. For all of the old powers that exited early (the Spanish dynasty finally hitting the wall, the English just as mediocre as anticipated, the Portuguese and Italians disappointing), the brackets still began to take on a predictable shape, with the winner surely coming from among a group of familiar faces.
Except that just about everyone figured that winner would be Brazil.
Down the road, we’ll be talking about the Germany-Argentina final, full of open, positive play, in stark contrast to Holland’s cynical approach against Spain four years ago. We’ll be talking about Mario Goetze’s winner in extra time, the kind of goal that ought to decide a World Cup. We’ll be talking about Germany—despite all of those clichés spouted mostly by English broadcasters and writers about how they always win it in the end, Germany actually hadn’t won anything of consequence since Euro 96—and about how this squad, a mix of youth and experience, came together beautifully under Joachim Loew as the tournament progressed.
But we’ll mostly be talking about what they did to the home team and what the home team did to itself in the semifinal, arguably (though just try to come up with a convincing counter-argument…) the most devastating loss in the history of sport, given the location, given the cultural baggage attached, given that Brazilian soccer supporters are the most secure, swaggering sports fans on earth, given that still-unbelievable scoreline: Brazil 1, Germany 7.
(Canadians always look for the hockey comparable, but there simply isn’t one—unless the 1972 Summit Series had ended after game one in Montreal.)
The truth is, no one is looking ahead to Russia 2018 the way they looked forward to this tournament. And though Qatar is eight years distant, and though there’s still the possibility that even shameless FIFA can be shamed into moving the 2022 World Cup elsewhere, there’s a sense that what we’ve just witnessed may be the end of a line. Like the Olympics, this thing has become too big, too expensive, to be staged sensibly by any functioning democracy. And the buzz that came with bringing it back to Brazil for the first time since 1950 won’t easily be replicated.
But there will still be great soccer—and in the meantime, the Euros are only two years distant.
For now, for better or worse, back to real life.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.