George Orwell called international football "war without the shooting". I'm not sure what he'd have made of the World Cup.
All I can say is that it really is a cup for all the world. Everywhere we went on holiday people were watching it. By people I mean men. Platis Gialos on the island of Mykonos was typical. Platis is Greek for wide, gialos for beach, and this beach was wide enough to accommodate a thousand sun loungers and perhaps a dozen bar-cum- restaurants all serving the same food and drink at the same prices.
On World Cup evenings, all but two of the bars sprouted screens. And as kick- off approached the people rolled off the sun loungers and into the bars. Except, that is, for the bars without screens which were patronised only by a few sad couples. They ate in silence, the wives looking sourly out to sea, the husbands straining to catch the commentary from a neighbouring bar.
In those neighbouring bars there was little more conversation but much more joy. The women sat with their backs to the screens. Their men watched the football over their shoulders. When a goal was scored the men leapt to their feet. When a shot just missed, the whole beach gasped. It didn't matter who was playing. Men loved it all.
This is the fifth World Cup I have written about. All five have boiled down to Brazil against Germany, though by Brazil against Germany I don't necessarily mean Brazil against Germany. What I mean is darkish skin against whitish skin, equatorial against Nordic, Latin against Saxon, Catholic against Protestant, poetry against prose, opera against industry, Maserati against Land-Rover, flair against skill, art against craft, love against thought and heart against head. It's the oldest dichotomy in human affairs. And football is very much a human affair.
You can see it in the names. One of the current crop of Germans is called Schweinsteiger. Schweinsteiger translates as Pig-raiser. If a Brazilian was called Pig-raiser he'd adopt a soubriquet. The most famous such soubriquet was Pele. My favourite was Socrates.
The current Brazilian team is short on Brazilianness. Its only artist is Neymar and he's just broken his back. The rest of the team is playing earnest Protestant football, but they've tried to maintain the naming tradition. They've got Fred, and Hulk and Oscar. Fred ought to be a brilliant name for a Brazilian. By being so stolidly Anglo-Saxon, it drips with irony. Sadly, however, Fred's played like a stolid Anglo-Saxon. Hulk's played better but his name's no good. The whole point of a soubriquet is that you create the mythology around it. Hulk comes crudely pre-mythologised by Hollywood.
And talking of Hollywood, consider Oscar. He hasn't done much in this competition, but his name would suit every player from South America.
I've just watched Brazil play Colombia. Play is precisely the right verb. It wasn't a great game of football but neither was it pig-raising. It was theatre. There was a stage, an audience, heightened emotion, limitless drama, and acting that deserved an award.
Two players clashed for the ball. The Colombian fell to earth, screaming, writhing, his hands clamped to his kneecap which was clearly shattered. The ref blew for a foul. The Colombian continued to writhe and roll as if repeatedly electrocuted. His opponent looked on in apparent amazement. As the ref bore down the Brazilian widened his eyes, opened his mouth, clamped his elbows into his sides, hunched his shoulders and turned his palms upwards. He became the very image of astonished innocence, of the about-to-be-martyred saint. "Me, foul an opponent? I'd sooner stab my grandmother."
Both players achieved their ends. The Brazilian avoided a yellow card. The Colombian got his free kick. And just as the medics threatened to lift him onto the plastic fish crate that serves as a stretcher, he made a remarkable and complete recovery.
The incident was three-quarters pantomime and by no means unique. But the crowd bought into every such moment. One set of supporters howled with outrage at every foul while the other set howled with outrage at the dive. Unless, that is, any of them caught sight of themselves on the big screen whereupon they immediately stopped howling with outrage and burst into smiles and frantic waving. In other words they were only playing at howling with outrage.
Which suggests that Orwell got it wrong. Rather than being "war without the shooting", football is a parody of war and a parody of the emotions of war. Which makes it not only attractive to men but also a jolly good thing.
Oh and Germany will win the final 2-1. Because they're playing more like Brazilians than the Brazilians are.
- The Press