Soccer is a dialogic sport. It is shaped by opposition and struggle, by action and counteraction. There are no absolutes in these kinds of sports. The things that make for a great match, for example, are not the same things that make for a great race. A race is structured by a standard measurement of time, as well as by the idea of absolute performance (“the fastest human”). But a match is measured by the quality of the conversation.
Opponents will sink and rise to each other’s level – every fan and athlete knows this experience. A match might be halting and uneventful, or lopsided and boring because the two sides never connect in play. Very talented, organized and competitive sides are not always open to talk. Spain played like a team that was tired of talking. A team that had been the life of the party for too many years, and now just wants a quiet night in once and a while. England and Portugal gave their own versions of this kind of performance. Their play has been characterized by a weary narcissism – they are not tired of the party; they are tired of themselves.
Contrast that disengagement with Germany, France, Ghana, Chile and Colombia. It’s no wonder that Germany and Ghana’s match was so tremendous: the two play with an interest in the opposition. No gesture is unremarked upon; their conversation was fluid and elegant. Each side has the capacity for a certain brutality; each has the capacity to engage and diffuse the other’s attack. Like Dorothy Parker and Gore Vidal trading barbs.
Portugal and the US – they gave us a good dialogue but not a great one. The US, on a good day, will rise to an opponent’s level. But Portugal wasn’t interested helping them along. So Portugal exploited defensive errors, and did little more than that. Yes, CR7, when left completely alone, will send in a perfect cross to just the right person. In this case, it was a witty remark made on the way out the door to suggest the fun we might have had, if he wasn’t so utterly bored by us and the world. The US was a more entertaining guest. One got the sense that they were playing through fear and disorientation. Glad to be at the table, not quite sure what they were supposed to say and do – every now and again, they’d reach across the table to fill their wine glass, wash the anxiety down and throw themselves into the fray.