The thundering, indomitable drone of vuvuzelas has dropped below the horizon, two hemispheres removed once more as the television cameras direct their gaze away from South Africa. Gone are the fever-dreams of Germans dancing the Brazilian samba, Dutchmen fortifying their goal with hammer and nails and a lion-maned Diego Forlan roaming the African Savannah in search of his next kill. What remains is the inevitable hollow feeling that comes when the pageantry and drama of international spectacle ends.
And yet we rejoice at having been witness again to why this game belongs to the world – to why it retains it’s allure as The Beautiful Game. The great joys of sport revolve around identity – the building of allegiances, the thrill of seeing perfected that which you enjoy recreationally, the communal bond created in stadiums, arenas or even an empty lot. So what better sport to draw people together than the one played everywhere by nearly everybody?
The World Cup is about telling these narratives about identity both on and off the field. The joy of the tournament is in the early rounds, when every team has a chance to win and we learn the stories of those who have worked so hard to reach the pinnacle of their profession. The great soccer powers enter with prepackaged identities – the joyful play of Brazil, the clockwork efficiency of Germany and the creative vision of the Dutch. But every four years even these giants must either reinforce or remake their stories along with each of the thirty-two teams that enter the arena.
As with all tournaments, the World Cup begins with possibility and ends with heartbreak for all but the victor. This year was no different. Ultimately, the final was unsatisfying. The Dutch tactics where too brutal by half, and the Spanish for all their technical expertise seemed to forget that this was not just a large-scale game of monkey in the middle. We appreciate the expertise but we yearn for the goal. Finally, the Spanish got their goal and with it their first World Cup trophy. All congratulations to the victors, but the true beauty of the game was on display elsewhere.
The true beauty of the game happened in moments both small and large. As Americans, the moment of the tournament was a last-gasp goal by Landon Donovan to save the team’s hopes. For the host nation it was to be found in seeing their home team – already eliminated from the tournament – seal the disgrace of mighty France. For the continent of Africa it must have been the steel nerve of Asamoah Gyan sealing victory for Ghana over the Americans in the quarterfinal. For South America the early joy of seeing all their teams advance gave way to the disappointment that resurgent past champion Uruguay could only in the end muster a fourth place finish. And for Uruguay, oh what joy to watch the player of the tournament, Diego Forlan, lift the team on his shoulders to defy expectations again and again.
For those who love the game, the World Cup is a treat not to be missed that comes around every four years. And every four years those who don’t love the game, even those unfamiliar with it, learn a little more about what it means to embrace its beauty. Even in a year where complaints about referees, the ball, and conservative tactics threatened to drown out all but the loudest of the horn blowing fanatics, we know that nothing quite like this will come around for another four years. In the meantime we revel in what we have just witnessed and we wait. For all of us hope remains and we, as have so many fans for so many years, set our eyes on the future and proclaim “we’ll get ‘em next time!”