ICYMI: The World Cup

July 16, 2014

As quickly as it came, it went. 64 games. A month long. Triumphs, failures, spectacle, excitement, tragedy, defeat, celebration and goals. So many goals. The highest highs and the lowest lows. It was the 2014 World Cup and it was one of the greatest sporting events in the history of man.

That may sound like a bit of hyperbole — and it’s tough to argue on a logical level that it’s not — but on a visceral one, it might be an understatement. At least heuristically, one can point to the bevy of players, coaches, journalists, fans and spectators who claimed this World Cup to be the “Copa das Copas”, or “The World Cup of all World Cups”. The King of Kings. The best of all time. Certainly there will be those who argue against that, Brazil fans perhaps who suffered the ultimate humiliation: a 7-1 slaughter that will be a stain on their national psyche for the next century. But, then again, 31 out of the 32 teams lost. Maybe not in such a grand, mushroom-cloud-of-destruction sort of way, but it doesn’t make it any less of a dagger to the heart.

And that’s the way it is: the memory of things past are filtered through the experiences of those remembering. Certainly German fans will remember this World Cup as the best of all time, just like Spanish fans did in 2010. It’s tough not to when you’re the champions. But what about Bosnia, who made it to their first World Cup ever, but who left the tournament after some questionable refereeing and underwhelming performances only two games in? Or Australia, whose national hero and retiring football superstar Tim Cahill scored what is certainly one of the great World Cup goals of this or any tournament, but ultimately didn’t have a shot at moving on?

In the end though, it’s over and doesn’t matter. This World Cup will never be again and all we are left with are the memories. We will remember RVP’s “Flying Dutchman” header that helped sink the defending champions La Roja. The emergence of James “Ha-Mez” Rodriguez as a world class superstar with a physics-defying thunderbastard of a goal. Or Tim Howard, Keylor Navas, Memo Ochoa, and Manuel Nuer, the goalkeepers who played out their skulls, like they were Goro from “Mortal Combat” with an extra set of arms, to lift their nations on their shoulders. We will remember the groundswell of national support the U.S. National Team received from a country that is “not a soccer country” and yet had more fans in Brazil than any other nation other than the hosts themselves. The Ticos of Costa Rica beating Italy and England, topping a group with three former World Cup champions, to deliver the all-time greatest underdog performance. We will remember Luis Suarez savoring the taste human flesh like a fleet-footed Hannibal Lector, Germany scoring four goals in six seconds on Brazil, the shootouts, the beaches and the blowouts, all while Christ the Redeemer looked on approvingly. “This will do,” he said from high atop his perch on Corcovado mountain.

Yet, it’s clearly more complex than that. Nothing, not even something that is at a minimum in the running for “greatest of all time” designation, can be summarized based solely on its highlight reel. As ESPN’s Southern poet Wright Thompson said, “The complicated soul of Brazil can only be seen when the window of one reality is viewed through another.” After all, he reminds us, while we saw shot after shot after shot of tanned, perfectly sculpted beach bodies splashing in surf of Copacabana and Ipenema, there were also about 4,700 gallons of raw human sewage dumping into the ocean every second.

That seems like the most apt metaphor I can think of. That with all of the pure unbridled elation of this World Cup, all of the amazement, suspense, and jaw dropping wonder, it can’t be remembered without its warts. Without the backdrop of abject poverty in the favelas, the drug violence, protests and riots. The fact that billions were spent to build a stadium in the middle of the Amazon that was only used three times, while most of the country’s inhabitants still don’t have access to working sewage disposal.

But would you want to remember one without the other? No person should be remembered just for their accomplishments, it betrays fundamentally who they were. We look back at the good times fondly because it helps us deal with the pain of loss but when something is gone, all we are left with are the memories we have. Changing them, molding them to our liking because it’s easier or more convenient for us, in a sense distorts the thing we are remembering.

So yes, I stand by my assessment that this was the greatest sporting event in the history of mankind, but precisely because it was a summation of the complicated world we live it. There was a backdrop of greed, corruption, class warfare, poverty and death. Yet, despite all of the examples of the worst in people, the community of the world came together and shared a collective experience. They sat in front of their televisions rapt, unable to look away as the minutes ticked down, knowing full well that whether they were in Nairobi, Bangalore, Chicago, Brussels, Cape Town, Hanoi, Chengdu, Bogota or Tangiers, they were experiencing the same thing as their fellow man. That despite of all of the ills of mankind, we can come together and put on a show of shows, experience something so purely human, so transcendently triumphant.

The World Cup is us and we are it. It is more than a sporting event and yet, it is just a sporting event. A champion was crowned and people celebrated. But, for 30 days in June and July, the World watched together. We experienced a global communion and for the briefest of moments, despite all of the differences that should tear us apart, we could all feel connected.

What is dead will never die. The 2014 World Cup has passed. May it live forever.