I don’t know any other sport so beloved by the people who play it, or the people who watch it.
Even we grumps in the press tribune appreciate the possibilities, buy into the mystique of joga bonito, the beautiful sport.
Everybody in the stadium understands that at any given moment something amazing can happen, out of nothing.
I don’t know any other sport like that. I mean, in American football or basketball or baseball, people expect touchdowns or dunks or home runs.
In world football, you just never know. There is always the possibility of being surprised. Turn away and you will be sorry. Arrive late and you will hate yourself.
(This is why I screamed at some idiot chauffeur who stepped in front of reporters during a goal in the 1998 World Cup semifinal in Marseilles; all I could see was the back of his stupid cap.)
When something gorgeous happens, players and fans and even writers like myself shake their heads and say, yes, that is football.
For me, it happened four times in the past week – twice on the television, once on the web, and once on a cold, damp Sunday morning under a bridge in New York.
1. Let’s take the Champions League first. Arsenal needed to erase a four-goal deficit in the home leg against AC Milan on Tuesday. I couldn’t get to the tube until the second half, by which time Arsenal had scored three times. What I saw next was 30 of the most furious minutes of soccer – the best players in the world stretching to keep up with each other, Arsenal at home, frantic, attacking while they still had juice in their legs, forcing Milan to get back, make desperate dives and lunges, and then daring Milan to go on the counter-attack. It was breathtaking to watch these players test each other.
Ultimately, Robin Van Persie missed a gimme in goal mouth, and AC Milan was able to stagger home with a 4-3 aggregate victory. But what an effort. And that is the essence of the sport. We are all drama critics or dance critics, every bloke and blokette in the stands. We have high standards. And both sides earned our respect that day.
2. The next day was Barcelona against Bayer Leverkusen. Lionel Messi made it totally irrelevant with two goals in the first half – and three more in the second half – for a 7-1 aggregate victory. All right, the little feller is the best player in the world, no point going over that. But with all due respect, Messi is also the hit man for the most beautiful soccer being played on this planet.
Forget about uniforms and faces and numbers; the style of Barcelona is interchangeable with the World Cup champion, Spain. That is not news, since many of them are the same players. Because they play together so often, to watch Barça move the ball is to watch the Bolshoi Ballet, choreography at the highest. They have been playing this way so long in this generation that it no longer requires thinking.
American fans observe Our Lads pausing, deliberating whether their teammate will actually be there if they propel the ball into that open space, but the Barça players know. Human pinball. Thump. Off Pique’s instep. Plock. Off Iniesta’s chest. Ping. Off Xavi’s toes. And there goes Messi, chipping home a goal at full stride.
3. Sometimes the brilliance arrives via the Web, the whole world taking pride in what somebody did on some other continent. On Wednesday, Neymar, the 20-year-old prodigy for Santos of Brazil, took off on a spontaneous run that must have been 70 meters long, a mixture of Olympic sprint and tailback initiative. The difference was that nobody called his play or directed him to the starting blocks. The ball arrived in his vicinity and Neymar took off, just to see if anybody could keep up with him. He shed defenders as he pushed the ball, and then he split two more defenders, muscling them at high speed, before beating the keeper on the run. Joga bonito in its home country.
Two questions: when will Neymar move to Europe? (Three questions, really; might Champions League defenses slow him down?) And might Neymar help win a World Cup at home in 2014 – before Messi ever wins one? That kind of speculation was on everybody’s mind as the whole world watched the video of Neymar’s run.
4. People love the sport on every level. On Sunday morning I went to watch my grand-daughter play for a very good and well-drilled squad from central Pennsylvania, in an early-bird outdoor tournament in New York.
The games were played on multiple fields on Randall's Island under the bridge that, with all due respect to Robert F. Kennedy, I plan to continue to call the Triborough Bridge. (For the same reason, the Jackie Robinson Parkway, re-named for another hero, will always be the Inta-Boro, in New York-ese.)
The other team in the Under-12 competition was from World Class FC. I know nothing about youth soccer, but then again, this was not youth soccer, this was joga bonito. The New York team swung the ball wide, tested the defenses, swung it to the other side, and attacked. Welcome to Fun City.
Sometimes routs can be instructive. World Class was so, well, so world-class that it could probe defenses on the run. At the age of twelve.
They were all good, but No. 10 would deliver the ball to the right to No. 4, who could turn the corner on anybody, on the run. Or somebody would find No. 13 on a fleet diagonal near the goal. It was a treat to watch, although probably not for my grand-daughter who held her own in midfield. (At one point she flat-out got annoyed at the proceedings and physically stripped the ball the way Michelle Akers used to do.) I think the score was 4-0. World Class was so smart, alert and clean. At the end we applauded both sides, in the best fashion of youth soccer, and I felt the need to personally tell the families from World Class that their team is terrific.
That’s the way we feel about world football – from Europe or Latin America or under the Triborough. It’s our sport, and when it is played well, we appreciate it. I don’t know any other sport that inspires this possessiveness, this sense of pride.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.