From Iceland — Passion Play

Passion Play

Published July 11, 2010

Passion Play
The storyline of the final has taken an odd turn lately. It’s almost become a passion play. You have the dull Dutch up against the saintly Spaniards which is, frankly, ridiculous. Holland played in two of the best games of the tournament, against Brazil and Uruguay, and have put together some absolutely lovely attacking moves. It’s not their fault that so many of their goals are complete flukes, the ball ping-ponging from Sneijder into the net. Robben has been exciting after recovering from his injury, Eljero Elia has been the best impact-sub of the tournament, Dirk Kuyt has taken being perfectly adequate to new heights of greatness, Baron Giovanni van Bronckhorst is probably the best 874 year old vampire ever to play at left back, and Heitinga and Mathijsen have proven the doubters (well me, anyway) silly and haven’t put a foot wrong (that John Terry impersonation against Brazil excepted). Yes, van Persie has not shone, and there hasn’t been the zip and zest of old, but it’s absurd to say that the Dutch are dull (even though I’ve been guilty of that myself, twice). Yes, they didn’t light up the group stages, but then no one did, and they didn’t exactly switch into top gear against Slovakia, but… y’know… it’s Slovakia. Since their dreadful first half against Brazil they’ve played at a different level. That semifinal against Uruguay may be my favorite game of the tournament.
That’s not to say that I’m supporting Holland against Spain. I’m fairly neutral, to be honest. The Spanish finally lived up to their European Championship-winning form, putting in a really sound game against Germany, who never looked dangerous. At their best, Spain are joyful to behold. They are the most cohesive unit at this World Cup. You get the feeling watching them that they could win games in their sleep (and sometimes it felt like they did) so instinctive and easy do they make it seem. But they’re not light-years ahead of The Netherlands in terms of quality or excitement. In their favor, they do not have evil werewolf Mark van Bommel on their team.* They are good, they are really, very, very good, even great, and at their best they’re just a pleasure to watch.
As to the bigger question, why do people experience games of sport as passion plays, I’m not so sure. My tentative explanation is that people tend to project moral values on everything. They see a grasshopper rubbing its hind legs up against its wings next to a horde of ants milling about on the ground and suddenly the grasshopper is some sort of lazy playboy musician gallivanting about while the industrious ants are all business and hard work and won’t the grasshopper be sorry once the cold, harsh winter comes along, oh yes indeed. Human beings are moralizers. Who hasn’t seen a newsreport about a celebrity and made an instant judgment on him or her? Similarly, when two sides go up against each other in sports, we like to figure out who to love and who to hate. This dynamic has produced the morality play so forthrightly expressed by John Oliver.
I want to say, “in the end, it’s just a game of football,” but it’s not. This is the World Cup Final. We only get one every four years. Years from now, young boys and girls now unborn will watch the game, much like I, and perhaps you, read about England’s victory over West Germany in 1966 and Brazil’s win against Sweden in 1958 decades after they happened. Hell, winning the World Cup boosts the victor’s GDP by 0.7 percent. This is serious business. This is high drama. We desperately want the victory to be deserved. In some ways, the question I should be asking isn’t “why do some people treat this as a passion play” so much as “why don’t I?” The answer is probably that after about 5 minutes I will have that knot in my stomach that tells me I’m caring too much again, and I’ll know who I think deserve to win. Though, of course, there’s no “deserve” in football, that most unpredictable of sports. Well, unpredictable to those of us with less than eight arms.

* I have to say that my hatred of Mark von Bommel has turned into sneaking admiration as the World Cup has wore on. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still the most dastardly player to have played in this world Cup besides the Brazilian midfield holding duo of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo, but as the ridiculous late tackles and sneaky fouls have mounted up without the requisite cards he’s somehow managed to transition from pure assbag to comic villain. He’s almost a professional wrestling heel by now. Hell, he said before the Final: “We will have to break their midfield.” So expect at least one piledriver on Iniesta and a suckerpunch straight into Xavi’s solar plexus.

Photo by kamagurka.

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